Show reviews

Everywhere You Turn: New Year’s with the Bad Plus

For the first real post on this blog, I’m going to review the first show of the new year (or the last show of last year I suppose). Seeing the Bad Plus at the Village Vanguard on new year’s eve has become a tradition for us in the last few years. This is our third year at the show, and it is always a good time for us. The Bad Plus, known for their irreverent avant garde tendencies and, perhaps unfairly, their predication for pop and rock covers, have always been a supremely satisfying band, particularly live. This new year’s double set was no exception. The first set, which started with a standard played totally straight in homage of Lorraine Gordon and included a number of new songs, was particularly enjoyable. The best way to think about the Bad Plus’ approach to music making, it seems to me, is that they look for new ways to do old things and old ways to do new things. For every rock song they cover or otherwise entirely modern song they write, you can hear that these are some musicians with a clear grasp of the longer tradition of the music. Ethan has said that they’re all big fans of Keith Jarrett’s ‘American Quartet’ with Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, and I think you can hear the strains of it throughout their music. Conversely, on the occasions that they do play an established standard, granted, rare though that may be, they will always look for some new, totally idiosyncratic twist to give it. They aren’t afraid to take a song from the great American songbook and play with the time or add the almost ghostly sound of the point of a drumstick edged along the top of a cymbal. Set list and more thoughts after the jump.

Here’s the set list, with the composers of the new songs in parentheses:

Set 1

  1. (Jazz standard that sounded vaguely familiar but I honestly couldn’t place)
  2. Wolf Out (Dave King)
  3. Who’s He
  4. Everywhere you turn
  5. My Friend Metatron
  6. Dirty Blonde
  7. Re-elect that (Ethan Iverson)
  8. (A new piece that they never actually announced)
  9. In Stitches (Reid Anderson)
  10. Have You Met Miss Jones (in F)

Set 2

  1. Seven Minute Mind (Reid)
  2. Thrift store jewelry
  3. Sing For a Silver Dollar (Ethan)
  4. Big Eater
  5. Auld Lang Syne, after a midnight  countdown
  6. Never Stop
  7. Smells Like Teen Spirit
  8. Heart of Glass
  9. Flim
  10. Iron Man
  11. Physicial Cities

Dave’s new piece ‘Wolf Out’ was particularly great. It had a unique rhythmic feel, partly due to hard to follow time and partly due to being choc full of polyrhythms. It had, however, an easily followable melody which helped center the song as it surged forward. Also great was Ethan’s new piece ‘Re-elect that’, which started as an all but formless, avant garde mess. In turn the piano and bass dropped out, leaving Dave King for a drum solo, after which the band came back with a melody and groove, rather than a free improvisation. It was a satisfying (sort of) through-composed song, with no repeating parts, which kept moving forward. The new piece that they did not announce was a real romp, practically bubbly and joyous (or rather, the Bad Plus brand of bubbly). The set ender, ‘Have You Met Miss Jones’, is likely my favorite of the non-original pieces they have in their repertoire. It’s the standard, and treated like a standard in every way except for the time, which varies, first chugging along then suddenly slowing to a lethargic dirge then speeding up to race speed again. Despite the wacky feel for the ever shifting time, they keep together tight. Ethan’s solo, which, were it not for the time, would have been stylistically perfectly at home on the standard, was a real joy to hear. The quality isn’t perfect, but youtube has a decent example or two of this song.

I would actually like to see the Bad Plus do more standards, not because I don’t love their original compositions, but because I think they do standards well. I’ve seen the individual musicians in different settings playing standards and thought them all spectacular. Last March I saw Ethan filling out a Paul Motian trio with Larry Grenadier. They played standards exclusively with the most wonderful, laid-back groove imaginable. Earlier in December I saw Reid and Dave backing saxophonist Chris Speed at John Zorn’s club The Stone. They played, along with an original or two and an Albert Ayler tune, Charlie Parker’s ‘Segment’ and Coltrane’s ’26-2′. The deconstructed groove they brought to those two songs makes them some of my favorite renderings of them that I have heard.

Ethan also contributed another spectacular example of avant garde composition in the second set’s ‘Sing for a Silver Dollar’. As the song evolved it came to a particularly atmospheric portion, which included Dave King using E.T. shaped toys which made some sort of feedback like sound. This brings me to my biggest complaint about Bad Plus shows: the audience. The E.T. toys are not the only non-conventional music-making device in Dave King’s toolbox, and I think the sound of the band is better for it. Every time he pulls something like a vintage toy out to use, however, there are invariably sniggers from the audience, who seem to look at that sort of thing as a joke or gimmick. To be sure, there is much humor in the Bad Plus’ music, but I do no think it’s a joke. For as wacky as the E.T. toys looked (and they looked kind of wacky) the music was great. I don’t know what exactly the toys were meant to do as toys, but the sort of ambient feedback Dave produced with them worked with the ambiance of the song perfectly. Had you closed your eyes and not seen the toys, you wouldn’t have known there was a reason to laugh. For all the humor in their music, that particular song was rather serious. Why should it be interrupted with laughter? On occasion the Bad Plus gets derided as some sort of novelty band (‘you know, that jazz trio that plays that Nirvana song’). If they haven’t proven themselves to be much more than a novelty act by now, then I don’t know what the deal is.

As expected a great show. I understand they are recording or recently did record new material for an album, I’m excited to see how it turns out.

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