Good Goes The Bad Plus

Once again, the trio: Ethan Iverson on piano, Reid Anderson on bass and Dave King on drums made themselves right at home, launching immediately into the Iverson-penned Mint. It was the first of a set that consisted mainly of new material, almost certainly all to be featured on their forthcoming record. That’s the typical modus operandi for these guys: write > road > record, and then, unfortunately…forget.

It seems that they kind of let the “older” material, which is really only one or two years old on average, wither in the past. Always moving, always forward, and thankfully, always phenomenal. The new stuff is fabulous, as I’d expect. Like other “Ethan tunes,” Mint is incredibly complex, the most avant-garde of the batch and yet incredibly listenable, exhilarating, moving at the same time.

I’ve written about it before, but it’s always worth mentioning every time, since the notion gets reinforced with every set I absorb: This is a band with a true trifurcated personality, and this is nowhere more evident than in their songwriting. It’s one of the few jazz bands I listen to where it’s a true band — not a frontman and his backing guys, and one that’s not just democratic but downright socialist in its approach to the music. Iverson writes the more “jazzy,” “out” and overall most interesting numbers; not surprisingly, King writes the rhythmically enhanced numbers, the ones that swing and move in surprising ways and, as a result, the most fun to listen to.

Reid Anderson deserves his own paragraph, since he’s really the lifeforce of the Bad Plus sound. Last night’s set was thankfully littered with Anderson numbers including, early on, You Are and You and I Are a Comfort Zone back-to-back. Quite simply, Anderson is the most creative, refreshing, SICKest composer I know. It’s almost as if, with each new song written, he is inventing not just new compositions but new ways of listening to and thinking about music itself.

Listening to a song like You and I Are A Comfort Zone is a meta-experience, the lyrical beauty, the twisting “point T to point C” voyage each movement makes, the interaction between the complex and the simplistic, and most importantly. the way three quite different musicians can roam freely and yet remain one unit.

Yes, it’s all there in Reid’s music. All this from a guy wearing a pair of jeans, T-shirt and Converse All-Stars on the same stage that [insert jazz legend here] once graced. The path from those guys to these guys is a curvy one, but it’s direct.


In so many ways, the Bad Plus are the anti-jazz jazz band. Take everything you love about the genre and they are likely to embody it, and yet, take everything you hate about the same and they probably tack tangentially. Take their covers. Usually the guy on stage at the Vanguard calls these “standards,” and even when played to their utmost, they have all the newness of the Senior PGA. TBP doesn’t do standards, or more accurately, they are redefining what it means — not adding to the canon, but deconstructing, dissecting and otherwise destroying the whole concept. Sure, anyone can do Radiohead tunes (and there’s little I love more than a good Radiohead cover), but who does the Bee Gees with the sincerity and honesty and literary-mindedness that these guys do?

When they strip down How Deep Is Your Love into a naked, melancholy ballad that’s barely audible above clinking glasses and the exhalations of the winter crowd, they seem to be making gorgeous music and making a giant historical statement. The entire disco era reduced to a three and a half minute cover song. Absolutely delish.

So, we’ve got the covers — and let it be known that they busted out three in the late set, apparently, including brand new ones Everybody Wants to Rule the World, Bowie’s Life On Mars and Rush’s Tom Sawyer, which was super-sweetness the last time I saw them at the Blue Note. Bee Gees, Bowie, Tears for Fears and Rush played within a span of two hours on the same stage Coltrane blew My Favorite Things into the stratosphere from…the more things change, the more they stay the same.


We’ve also got the utterly unique stage presence of the band. The entire enterprise feels more like an inside joke sometimes than a world-class piano trio operating at the threshold of creativity and skill. The vibe permeates from piano to drum kit (constantly enhanced with well-timed jing-a-linging from King’s kiddie toys — never fails to get at least one chortle out of the crowd) but is also felt the most from Ethan’s introductions between the songs. Half the fun of a Bad Plus show is Iverson’s wit, which is unparalleled in a band frontman that I’ve ever seen — from rock, jazz on down, he’s the one.

An entire parallel review could be written on just the stuff this guy said Tuesday night, so let’s just suffice it to say that Iverson is to stage banter as Anderson is to songwriting. One of his best tales of the night introduced Dave’s new one, Thrift Store Jewelry, which was a perfect example of the King style. Wild Latin rhythms switched speeds and directions at will with wild contortions from the other two. I say this every time I see a new tune from Dave King, but this is one of his best yet. You think this new album is gonna be good or what?

But the night belonged to Reid (“the maestro” – EI) and his brilliance. Dirty Blonde (“about the hair color” – EI) is the lone “oldie” and is a whole lotta Anderson love for the audience. High energy and actually stretched out in some surprising ways. Another anti-jazz angle on the trio is that they actually don’t really improvise all that well, or I should say it isn’t their strength. The power is always in the songs themselves, the execution, the energy, the evolution. The stretches in between the composed sections serve as release from the ever-so-tight playing and not vice-versa. And yet, despite that, this is nothing but a live band, something that takes on new life on stage.

Another wonderful new Iverson tune, Old Money, and the cover This Guy Loves You (which I guess is a standard, maybe?) was sandwiched between the two big highlights for me — Anderson’s Giant and Physical Cities. The former is a slower, prettier number that flowed slowly from an introductory, short bass solo. Anderson’s playing here was muy bueno — forming a bass line that is so elegant and perfect that you wonder how it hasn’t been written by someone else in the history of Western music. While each musician has their own fingerprint in composition, what impresses me most is always how that writing seems to favor the other guy.

Giant is a great example: Reid has composed a perfect vehicle for Ethan’s playing. The piano work on this song was, in a word, otherworldly — the kind of playing that makes you appreciate the power of what those black and whites can do with the right hands laid upon it. Overlapping, building lines begat more of the same and seemed to hit their mark perfectly. Words can’t do it justice.


The set-ending Physical Cities was a spotlight on Dave King’s maniacal drumming. Occasionally, I find myself getting too distracted by his non-stop hyperactivity, but here Anderson has harnessed that whirlwind and focused it to one of the most phenomenal works in the Anderson catalog. Pure rhythm personified with King wrapping a nearly technotronic beat around a humming low end.

The breaks in the action feature some of the most fantastic music ever centered on a single chord — the band just sits on that note and rides a rhythmic pattern that seems to come from a random number generator. Measures and measures of music pass on this single chord booming out in some sort of tone-deaf morse code — building in energy to a final explosion of what I could never, ever call jazz.

The Bad Plus is in action through Sunday at the Vanguard. You know what to do.

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