The Bad Plus continually confirm their significant role of jazz ambassadors in contemporary music. Known in the early 2000s as a jazz band that also played pop classics by artists such as Blondie, Peter Gabriel, Nirvana, and Cyndi Lauper., The Bad Plus has avoided arrangements that makes their music feel ersatz. Instead, the Minneapolis trio injects distinct shifts in expectations for what popular jazz can be, and how we understand the structure of musical references. In other words, never boring, they also keeping enough of the original shape to keep listeners grounded.
The Bad Plus are currently promoting their newest album Never Stop II (released 1/19/18). Their work 15 years on still contains motifs of rock, pop, jazz funk, film scores, drum n’ bass, acid jazz, and modern jazz, making for a rich and engaging listening experience. Stopping off on their national and international tour, the trio visited Boston’s Scullers Jazz Club.
The set at the cozy renowned room included “Boffadem,” which carries a bass line reminiscent of Lonnie Liston Smith’s 70s jazz groove “Expansions.”In “Salvages”, as pianist Orrin Evans pays homage to legendary pianist Keith Jarrett, even with his subtle vocalizations. Calm and breezy, the piano takes us through an emotional journey, steady at times, but also fluid and unstoppable. Lurking throughout this track is drummer Dave King, creating tensions that are only countered by the underpinning of bassist and co-founder Reid Anderson. This trio works as one body, each member constantly aware of each other, yet allowing the body to move in different directions with the sum of its parts.
The beginning of “Safe Passage” was delivered hard, simple, and emotional, like an Ellie Goulding tune, but here they use that as a vehicle to submerge us to a depth where we can hear that as distant yet plausible reality. It is, however, saturated with their desire to bring us to another location so we can explore it all anew-forget the pre-packaged, this is the fresh stuff.
Creating metaphor and imagery with their music, they easily build narratives. In “Wolf Out” we seem to be caught in between radio stations, hearing, aspects of one instrument come and go. Evans’ piano sounds the frequency, the drums like another distant radio station. Disparate elements distill the trio into a steady spiral into melodrama. Crashing drums and descending piano race down into a place of danger, unrest, like a silent movie that can’t be stopped from its maddening flickering pace. Then, in a swirl of unity the sounds begin to give us a breath, evenness, and then it’s done, and we are left reeling in silence.
The Bad Plus offer a solid foray into modern jazz, but their attitude is contemporary, fusing familiar elements of pop culture sounds to create a fresh situation. Their work speaks about the universal, at times cosmic qualities that still make jazz relevant for even the casual listener.