Some things are inevitable - the laws of nature dictate them. The sun rises in the East each morning, politicians lie, cheat, and steal each day, and great live bands release (great or not so great) live albums. So it was inevitable that The Bad Plus, one of the more innovative, electrifying live jazz acts on the scene, would give us something like Blunt Object: Live In Tokyo sooner or later.
First things first, the music on this disc is terrific. Half originals/half covers, most but not all of the many faces of the Bad Plus are well represented, and on a personal note, many of my favorites are included. Blunt Object begins with the cycling, affable cover of Queen’s classic “We Are the Champions,” one of many songs on the album that showcase the trio’s wonderful ability to build to a climax with slow, steady, increasing intensity. Ethan Iverson’s “Guilty” is wonderful – a quiet blues tune that magnifies each musician’s contribution to the mix, and Reid Anderson’s “And Here We Test the Powers of Observation” may very well be the greatest song written in a long while. The songs and versions chosen from a multi-night stand at the Blue Note in Tokyo do a good job showing the musical personality of the band with the frenetic cover of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” breaking down into an awkward, almost reggae-ish middle before crashing to a halt and finally double-timing it with the sizzling coda. It doesn’t work completely, but then again, this music is not note-perfect, and thus we get an accurate picture of what The Bad Plus is like in a live setting.
On the other hand, the music itself is only part of the whole. A live show is a back-and-forth between the musicians themselves and a breathing, thinking audience in real time. In this regard, the album falls short. The sound production does a good job of capturing each instrument with clarity but seems to miss out on the space between the instruments. One doesn’t get the feeling that the piano, bass, and drums are necessarily on the same stage, let alone in the same, tightly-packed jazz club. The vibrancy of the live crowd seems to be missing from the mix as well. On a couple of occasions you can actually hear a reaction from the audience, like the awed applause after an ecstatic climax in the middle of “Do Your Sums – Die Like a Dog – Play for Home” and a yelp of anticipation at the start of “Heart of Glass.” For the most part, though, there is nothing to give you a feel for how the Japanese jazz-heads are reacting to the music. Are they politely clapping or overtly enthusiastic between songs? Do they waver between giggles and gasps when David King brings a cacophony to its end with his do-it-yourself percussion from baby toys? Is there a din of whispers and a clattering of glasses containing overpriced cocktails accompanying the scene or does the crowd sit in respectful silence? None of this comes through on Blunt Object, leaving it a bit cold and lacking in the intimacy in which the shows were certainly were bathing.
Perhaps the worst omission from the album is the space in-between the songs. Usually, if one were asked whether they’d prefer band-member chatter before and after songs in lieu of more music on a CD, he’d choose the latter. With the Bad Plus though, the running monologue between the songs is as much a part of the experience as the music itself. Each band member has his own distinct and utterly enjoyable personality aside from the music they are creating, which comes out only when they are introducing a song or telling a fantastical tale only tangentially related to the music. To sacrifice Ethan Iverson’s unique wit and humor in the interest of creating space is a sin. It seems they threw in the disc’s closer, a surreal interpretation of “My Funny Valentine,” which was recorded 4 years ago in NYC as a juxtaposed nod to The Bad Plus’ other side, but it doesn’t quite do the trick.
Blunt Object is presently available in limited release only through the Sony website or through Apple iTunes in what may very well become a model for distributing small-batch music to the ever-fracturing universe of ears. It is certainly worth a listen, despite its limitations, but I’d recommend checking out the studio albums first, then seeing a show yourself. As a live album, Blunt Object only gets it half right.
JamBase | New York
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