Sometimes things just line up like so many planets in a Mayan calendar prognostication. Last night was one of those nights where the live music gods were smiling on me as I took in a trio-twofer that left my brain aching and my body still pulsing with lingering polyrhythms. I dubbed the evening the "Cerebrum Cerenade" before I even left my apartment, and although I hate building up expectations, it was a true neuron-tickler.
Part one of the evening was catching The Bad Plus at Joe's Pub. This would be my fifth Bad Plus show and I looked forward to how well this band would continue to inspire passion within me at the half-decade mark. To say that they did not disappoint would be an understatement. The band that has been the "it" group of the year for me took things to the proverbial "next level" last night and I'm salivating at my chance for our next encounter.
Unbeknownst to me beforehand, this show was part of the CMJ festival, which brings throngs of musicians, music industry types, and rabid collegiate music fans to New York City, forming an overwhelming glut of music. I got to the club and there were tons of students with their CMJ badges already milling about waiting to get in. I had been hoping to get in early enough to get a good resting-my-elbows-on-the-stage seat. Disappointed, I left for a bit, coming back after the doors opened. Remarkably, the best table in the house was the only one empty and I took a seat there... even more remarkably, no one else sat down next to me. One planet snapped into place.
For those of you who care, here's the set list from the show:
Joe's Pub, New York City, NY, 23 October 2003
Do Your Sums, Die Like a Dog, Run Like Hell, And Here We Test Your Powers of Observation, 1979 Semi-finalist, Velouria (Pixies cover), Cheney Pinata, Street Woman (Ornette Coleman cover), Flim (Aphex Twin cover), Dirty Blonde, Layin' the Strip for the Higher Self State Line, Big Eater
E: Heart of Glass (Blondie cover)
The band has recently finished recording their second album for Columbia Records and many of the songs they played will be on that record, entitled Give, which is slated for a March release. The set was a great showcase of the new material, with a healthy mix of covers and tunes off their first release, These Are the Vistas.
There are a lot of things I absolutely love about this band. Perhaps first and foremost is that, to me, this is like four bands in one--depending on whose song they are playing (three members + covers = four), the band takes on a completely different form. The Bad Plus is Ethan Iverson on piano, Reid Anderson on bass and Dave King on drums. The show started off with "Do Your Sums..." an Iverson composition. His songs are the most "jazz"-like of the three and have the greatest tendency to get "out there." "Do Your Sums..." is in three parts and was inspired by a dream Ethan had (as he told us before the song), but it would take several listens for me to figure out where one part ended and the next began. Still, there was a great energy here, as each member seemed to be playing in constantly-diverging directions. The second tune was "And Now We Test Your Powers of Observation," an Anderson song which has become my favorite Bad Plus number. His tunes don't feel like jazz at all, they sound like instrumental pop classics. Reid's compositions are deep, pensive, moody compositions that twist multiple themes together expertly. Instead of hitting a rewarding climax, the payoffs with "Observation" come in smaller jubilant doses, which often lead to much chair-dance squirming from me.
The third song was "1979 Semifinalist" from Dave King. King's version of the Bad Plus is that of a lyrical storyteller. While the songs are instrumentals, they tell a very specific tale within. Unlike other instrumental music where the listener can fill in the blanks, the story is already in place for King's tunes. As Ethan described before the song, "Semifinalist" is the story of a Queens man (known as "the Judge" because of his stern demeanor, even though he was a "happy-go-lucky" guy) who made the semifinals of his bowling league at Atomic Lanes. The song is of his happy-but-not-ecstatic walk home--he did not make it all the way, but he did bowl his best game of the year. While it might seem superfluous to attach such a tale to a song, in this case it is not just helpful, but necessary. This is the song about that man and the music captures the mood perfectly--a strange, lighthearted juxtaposition of disappointment and joy with a touch of overall irreverence. On top of that, the tune amazingly evokes a disco-like flavor that places it somewhere between the 1970s and 1980s. The other King song from the set was "Layin' The Strip," which seems to tell a story of the open road, almost sounding like the piano-jazz version of the Grateful Dead's "Truckin'."
One thing that struck me during the show was that not only were the songs so different from each other, but each composer seemed particularly adept at writing music for their band mates. Their mutual admiration for each other's talents has started to shine through in their writing. The piano parts in Reid's songs are gorgeous, the room for that little extra something from the bass is there in King's numbers, and the drummer has the freedom to go nutso in Iverson's offerings.
I won't mention the cover songs except to ask you to take a look at the variety and alternating ubiquity and obscurity of their picks. Imagine what they might sound like from a pop trio trapped in a piano trio's body (think 95 lb linebacker or 6'10" 250 lb philosophy professor) and then catch the Bad Plus in concert next time they're in your town.
It'll be tough to do a complete song-by-song take on the show, so I'll move on to what put this show on that next level for me. To put it in the most straightforward terms, the playing was just flat out better from top to bottom. Both on the stage and in the crowd there was a different kind of energy. I am positive that, at least in some part, this had to do with the younger college crowd. The Bad Plus is a jazz band with rock 'n' roll/pop music tendencies and Thursday they really let their rocking id take over. While the band always seems to "get into" the music they're playing--Anderson coiling with each phrase, Iverson bouncing at his seat, and most of all Dave King flopping around his drum kit like a formless squid--there was a previous shade of restraint over their playing. For this show, they just seemed to not only dress themselves up in each other's playing, but to admire themselves in the mirror. There were smiles on all three of them from start to finish and the positive energy flowed over to the music.
Perhaps the biggest reason the show was so great was Dave King's playing. He's a great drummer, no doubt, but sometimes his loose style of playing can lend itself to getting things a touch "off." He was nothing short of perfect at Joe's, providing enough of a backbone to frame the proceedings while letting 'er rip every half-measure at least. The audience certainly was feeling it from King as much as I was, gasping, guffawing, and giving him brief standing ovations throughout the set. He does a lot of percussive tricks throughout a show that toe the border of shtick, but when they are working it ads yet another dimension to his playing. Everything was working on Thursday.
My final highlight of the night was a special sort of "jamming" that was in some ways different and a bit evolutionary from the previous shows I've seen. Of course, there is always improvisation within each tune--nice long solos from Iverson with an occasional bass solo thrown in and a minute or two of just anything-goes clanging. Something new and different cropped up on a couple occasions Thursday. The two specific instances I can think of were during the Anderson tunes "And Now We Test..." and "Big Eater." These songs are very compositionally driven and each member seems to wear their individual parts as a perfectly fitting suit: individually they look sharp and debonair; as a trio, they are a suave dynamo. Well, for ever-so-brief moments during these tunes, the band went to a new place, entering a three-man bank-and-froth round table that was engaging, inspiring, and brilliant. These sections couldn't have lasted more than 30 seconds--long enough for you to hold your breath in amazement without becoming uncomfortable for lack of oxygen--but they packed a wallop that left a show's worth of impressions. Exciting, to say the least.
A quick note on the second part of the evening: Wayne Krantz at 55 Bar (and I use the term "quick" very loosely). I've waxed philosophical before on that slice of the NYC music scene carved out by Krantz and company, but I feel obligated to mention it again every so often. His music is constantly awe-inspiring and constantly changing. The group was back to its original form Thursday with Tim Lefebvre on bass and Keith Carlock on drums (fresh off an extended "break" hitting the skins and getting jaws to drop with Steely Dan). These guys are fundamental to the amorphous being that is this music. Tim is my favorite. His bass playing is a unique jazzfunkrock that defies imagination. It swallows you and spits you out and gets the hairs on your scrotum to stand up at attention. Keith is a precision powerhouse rattling off 20 beats at once, or absolutely none at all. His constant attention to where the music is, where it was, and where it is going is an awesome talent. Wayne is Wayne--a singular force on the guitar mixing a wild imagination, wicked effects, and sizzling chops to perfection. Words can't do these guys justice... If you are in NYC on a Thursday, check to see if Wayne Krantz is playing with his K3 trio. At the end of the Bad Plus show I wanted to reach over and grab all three of those guys by the collar and implore them to check out Wayne Krantz. At the same time I want to do the same to you. Go see Wayne Krantz--you may hate it, but if you like it, it will likely change your perspective on what the possibilities are.
Thursday night the trio once again ripped a few wormholes in the universe, taking turns exchanging brains with each other and the audience. There are moments in life when a conflict of emotions confuse our minds and cause a surprising result. We cry at sappy moments in movies or get disproportionately angry upon stubbing a toe. At a Wayne Krantz show this phenomenon manifests in uncontrollable fits of laughter. The notes from Tim, Keith, and Wayne meld together in some sort of musical super-alloy that your mind just can't handle and suddenly you find yourself laughing out loud. The chuckle is quickly stifled, but you take great comfort in the fact that at least two or three others in the crowd have let out the same guffaw at the same precise moment. The Krantz experience is a never-ending string of these mini-orgasms and gets the neurological juices flowing like nothing you've ever tasted.
The constant pounding of music that is all at once heavy fusion, neck-slinging rock, addictive funk, and brainy jazz hasn't changed from the first time I set foot in the 55 Bar, and yet it seems that everything is different. Most likely it's me that is different, and ain't that a beautiful thing. There are songs, for sure, but each is merely a suggestion of a theme that gets the ball rolling. Before you know it tangents beget tangents and even more tangents until they've doubled back on themselves in a complicated musical spider web. New to the mix Thursday night was a wicked quiet mode of playing. The loud cacophony from the far end of the room hit a brick wall multiple times during the set. The crash left the groove in pieces on the ground. Slowly, grain-by-grain, Wayne would pick up the fragmented theme, turning a near silence back into a sheer wall of sound before our very eyes. It was wonderful to feel the music build back up from absolutely nothing, as if providing an x-ray view of some of the densest music you've ever heard. The real amazement, though, was how tight these guys pulled it off--one moment they're running full speed in 18 different directions, the next they're at a complete standstill, and then before you can absorb the latest turn of events, they're off again... And (an unintentional burp of laughter later) you're left hopelessly behind running to catch up with a big fat grin on your face.
What was once an every-Thursday gig has become more problematic. Wayne has done his best to keep this Titanic afloat, filling in the gaps with very able substitutes. But when it comes down to it, there is no substitution for Tim and Keith. Musicians were made to play together, that much is obvious from those who "get" whatever "it" is that a certain grouping is trying to do. Ethan, Reid and Dave were meant to play together, and Wayne, Keith, and Timmy were made to play together. My dreams of the future involve seeing both of these trios play together for a long, long time, watching them evolve and stay the same and play obscene games with my synapses until I break out in laughter for no apparent reason.
Ned-O-Matic: 5 stars (out of 5) [both shows]
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