It’s Good to Be Bad

January 14, 2009

images1Progressive jazz trio The Bad Plus has gotten a lot of good press over the past several years. They’ve carved out their reputation playing deconstructed covers of pop tunes like “Knowing Me, Knowing you” by ABBA and “Everybody Rules the World” by Tears for Fears. However, bassist Reid Anderson, pianist Ethan Iverson, and drummer David King are serious composers as well—a talent that they spotlighted at their concert at the historic Village Vanguard club on January 2, the second of a four gig engagement.

These guys are intellectual and they want you to know it. Their music melds a complicated, dissonant classical aesthetic with a rock beat, but the beat is not steady. The time signatures shift wildly within a single piece and their approach is decidedly inaccessible to a jazz novice. The musicians are obvious fans of 60s’ free jazz and Ornette Coleman in particular. However, Coleman’s warm, rich saxophone playing always keeps the listener rooted in the music, whereas The Bad Plus’ trio of three rhythm instruments is cold and distancing. This trio demands a vocalist, or at least a horn player.

The band launched their set with an interpretation of Igor Stravinsky’s composition Apollo—certainly not a breezy beginning. Then, they quickly moved on to their own works: “You Are” composed by Anderson and “Bill Hickman at Home” by Iverson. In both pieces, the lead piano melodies are tender and rather beautiful but are overpowered by loud, enthusiastic drumming. The combination just doesn’t seem to work.

However, the crowd at the Vanguard was up to the challenge of high art on a Friday night. Polite and attentive, the audience applauded during lengthy bass and drums solos and even demanded an encore. Finally, when the band ended with a swinging version of the standard “Have You Met Miss Jones?” you wondered why these guys couldn’t just lighten up and play some jazz.

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