Lately, I've found that "jazz" as a musical genre has become rather tired and uninteresting. Jazz, to me, is about creating conventions and then breaking them and history has many examples of such... but not so much in recent years. Then a few weeks ago someone handed me The Bad Plus’s album These Are the Vistas, and I remembered what it was that turned me on to jazz in the first place. Then I caught the trio from close proximity and the cozy and plush Joe's Pub in New York City later that week, and all seemed right in the universe once again. Here's a review of The Bad Plus, on CD and in concert. Not that you should need this to entice you: they've already been lauded in local, national and international press.

The Bad Plus is, on one hand, the basest of jazz clichés: the acoustic piano trio. But after a listen to this album, I think the more apt description is that of the basest of rock and roll clichés: the garage band/power trio. The Bad Plus exist somewhere in musical space directly between Duke Ellington and Nirvana, rooted in the rules and conventions and elegance of the piano, bass, drums ensemble yet completely absorbed in the catchy hooks of pop music.

Listening to the album I am struck again and again how, unlike so many other groups out there, the solos and individual talent-wanking take a backseat to a true trio mindset. That isn't to say there isn't any talent there: pianist Ethan Iverson has an uncanny ability to hold a rhythm with his bouncing left hand while extrapolating a theme into solos with his right; many of the influences are apparent - you can hear some Ellington, some classical piano concerto and some Jerry Lee Lewis, amongst others; bassist Reid Anderson is an unassuming but solid presence on the bass (that is, a true bassist!) whose major contributions to the band are undoubtedly his songwriting leadership; and David King is another one of those is-he-insane? type drummers who make you dizzy trying to replicate his all-over-the-place rhythms with your tapping toe and bobbing head.

Looking back on the show at Joe's Pub and These Are the Vistas, it is apparent that each of these musicians is a leader. Iverson is the "frontman" taking the solos and the melody, introducing the songs and making the chit chat with the audience. Anderson is the songwriting force, transforming an obvious alt-pop influence into gorgeous, almost minimalist jazz compositions. While the album has an even distribution of songwriting from all three, the live show really displays Anderson as the composer of the three. And King is the talent hog, the guy you go home talking about after seeing them live. He did some things that, had they not been pulled off so well, could only be construed as silly gimmicks. A real "wow!" experience.

Which brings us to the songs. The album dives off into an explosive taste of the trio with "Big Eater." Listening to it now for inspiration, it is apparent that you better be a big eater to digest the number of notes these three are producing. Unlike your typical all-instrumental album which, on the face of it, allows the listener to come up with what the songs are "about," this album has liner notes which at least give you an image or an idea to hold onto as you're listening. For example "Boo-Wah" gives us "hectic, humorous, heroic, harrowing" (couldn't have said it better than that), while one of my favorites, "1972 Bronze Medalist," reads: “Jaques won his medal for weightlifting. Now retired, he lives in a small seaside town in France, hero to the local children. Every day he walks bare-chested to the beach, medal swinging in time to his proud gait.” The beauty of this is the imagery you can attach to the music. The tune has a "proud gait" and you can just picture each note telling the story of this large, somewhat silly man along the way.

But most of all, the tune has a great, catchy melody. And that, as I alluded to earlier, is what sets The Bad Plus apart. I find that some jazz music insulates itself from the universe of rock and roll and "popular" music working solely in a world of jazz history until it bores you to death. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, it incorporates rock/pop through tired, played fusion efforts that sound forced and too self-aware. The Bad Plus does neither. They acknowledge their upbringing on pop music through thoughtful covers and an attention to catchy melodies, but remain rooted in the jazz realm.

So, let's get to those covers... the album has three: Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," Blondie's "Heart of Glass" and Aphex Twin's "Flim." The most illustrative is the Blondie tune which has an unmistakable hook that anyone who has listened to the radio in the last 20 years would recognize (same to be said for "Teen Spirit" in the last 10 years). The Bad Plus play on this phenomenon in a near-brilliant way. They embrace that catchy melody and then fuck with our familiarity by taking it apart piece by piece. The tune becomes nearly unrecognizable in a fury of cymbal crashes and ivory pounding and just when you think that the song has gotten too "out there" it reaches the ultra-melodic coda and repeats in triumphant repetition that will have you humming it over and over to yourself for weeks on end. Hummable jazz? That's The Bad Plus.

They did a similar thing live which really opened up my eyes to this B.P. M.O. with the Police's "Every Breath You Take." Iverson introduced the song with a joke: (paraphrasing) "I think this song has been on the radio somewhere in the world on some station at ALL TIMES since it first became popular." The audience laughed, but in a way, the joke was on us. They love the catchy melody yet they also love that everyone is addicted to it and manipulate the music and the audience simultaneously. I really loved the way they took this one apart, with Iverson's left hand taking that sampleable hook and just running it in weird theme-from-Spy-Hunter places while the rest of the band reached almost-too-far levels. Never noise, never out-there soloing, just twisted rearrangement on the fly. Again... humming to myself for days afterward.

Taking it to the next level is "Flim," which might be in the top ten catchiest tunes I've heard. Apparently, this is a piece of electronica music that they have turned into a jazz tune. If it sounds twisted, it all fits in perfectly with The Bad Plus attack on the mundane. In the end, I think they are only looking for the best music, and this melody is the centerpiece to my second favorite song from both the album and the live performance.

Now is as good a time as any to get into David King, drummer extraordinaire, first using his work on "Flim" as an example. I'll say it again: "wow!" You really need to see someone live to get a full appreciation of the disclaimer in the liner notes: "there are no edits or overdubs on this record." A complex layer of electronica rhythms fleshed out in four limbs - we're not talking that drum-machine inhuman-tempo rave rhythm, but rather a thoughtful array of beats that somehow collapsed into one drummer. King has talent that impresses on record and awe-inspires live. He hits 'em hard, but the delicacies are in the delicacy. He's got toys to hit and include in his kit and he hits the drums with this and that, but it never felt forced or gimmicky. During another brilliant tune by Anderson, "Neptune (The Planet)," King played the entire song using the antennae of two walkie-talkies as drumsticks. At the same time the radios were on and would create feedback when they were brought into proximity of each other. Not only that, they would pick up his playing as well as the playing of the piano and bass. Somehow (!) he was able to weave these myriad sounds into another jaw-dislocating expression of drumming and keep it out of the realm of kitsch and in the realm of just good music.

The album and the show were very similar in their arc, starting a bit abruptly and loudly before settling in and consistently getting better and better reaching their climax in the last two songs. It was during a tune that I hadn't heard before the evening, "The Bison," where the show settled in and I truly realized how important Anderson's songwriting is to this band. I believe all but two songs played (of 10) were either a cover or an Anderson original (although I might be wrong about that). His songwriting has a real sense of originality to it, an attention to melody and a real influence of Radiohead-inspired indie-pop. The songs somehow balance a minimalist front with the freedom for the musicians to lose it in wild rhythms and playful back-and-forth. They leave room for solos, but unlike a lot of jazz, they don't rely on those individual efforts to awe their audience. The meat is in the songs themselves.

The show ended just as the album does, with a powerful, inspirational cover of "Heart of Glass" and an encore of my favorite song on the album: Anderson's "Silence Is the Question." First the liner notes: "We dimmed the lights in the studio to record our longest and most dramatic track. Mood-lighting is also encouraged for the listener." Indeed! Silence is the question as the song starts off at a near-silence before building note by note into a complete and utter sonic masterpiece. If you could put music in the dictionary, the climactic answer to the title's question (an emphatic "no!") could go next to the entry for "cacophony." Yet at the same time, it is a noise that is comprised completely of melodic pieces. Each note added to the mix is dependent on the notes that preceded it all the way to the gap between music and silence... in a crazy, delusional, head-spinning way. Words can do little justice to this, the jazz equivalent to garage rock... ear-rattling, feedback-fuelled, windmill-guitar-inspired, anarchistic, jubilant, climactic... music. Or, as I wrote after my third listen: "the shit!"

Believe the hype. Check out The Bad Plus.

Aaron Stein
JamBase | New York
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[Published on: 5/5/03]

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