Fans of the former piano-bass-drums trio The Bad Plus, who had two incarnations under that musical configuration have transformed into a quartet without a piano. This is, of course, not new news to their fans, some of whom may have already seen the lineup in live performance. But, for most of us, there’s quite a high level of curiosity that awaits this studio debut with founding members bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King (remarkably, this is the band’s 15th studio album) inviting new colleagues and two musicians they’ve had a history with into the fold. They are guitarist Ben Monder (David Bowie (BLACKSTAR), Paul Motian, Maria Schneider Orchestra, to name a few) and saxophonist Chris Speed (Broken Shadows with King, Anderson, and Tim Berne and The Dave King Trucking Company). Speed is primarily a tenor saxophonist but also plays clarinet on the new album.
The goal was to bring the same kind of energy and inventiveness that propelled this group to wide popularity, a punkish attitude that enabled them to rein in a rock and pop audience that stretched beyond just jazz circles. One of the defining characteristics though of the trio sound was a minimalist approach and an affinity for pop-like melodies. King and Anderson have managed to retain those two primary elements but this new jazz-rock fusion sound, at least to this writer, bears only vague resemblance to the trio sound, yet it’s heavier and in some ways more exciting. What remains constant beyond the bass-drum rhythm tandem is that King and Anderson are the two main composers. Simply put, the instrumental lineup offers more sonic possibilities. You have to be open to them and not be stuck on the piano-bass-drums sound.
The album kicks off with “Motivation II,” thick heavy bass followed by Speed and Monder in unison with a simple repetitive melody over King’s industrial-like beats that dissolves into smooth and then ringing guitar riffs until Speed reenters with his triumphant series of notes. “Sun Wall” plays much more jagged and edgy, with King’s drumming and cymbal work again a focus. “Not Even Close to Far Off” has an intro akin to Charlie Watts revving up a Stones tune before Speed’s melodic tenor rides above Monder and Anderson’s dense distortion followed by Speed’s going-for-the jugular solo and a feisty exchange between the two new members. All clear a path for King’s insistent rhythmic trance, and the tune glides out a little more gently, segueing nicely to the expansive, cinematic “You Won’t See Me Before I Come Back,” a feature for Monder, and Speed doubling on tenor and clarinet, impressively improvising again in the tune’s latter half.
Each tune is in the four-six-minute range with “Sick Fire” the shortest at four minutes (thankfully). Sharp, dissonant, screeching bursts from Speed’s tenor mingle with King’s frenetic kit work and Monder’s distortion-laden lines to create a maelstrom of sound, leaving us a spontaneous kind of mash-up with little resembling melody, akin to a violent nightmare. It’s as if the curtains pull back for King’s beats followed by Speed and Monder in contrapuntal ensemble patterns that evoke the kind of minimalism that is the band’s hallmark for “Stygian Pools.” As Speed and Monder solo, they twist and bend the chords inside out while King and Anderson steer them calmly. “In the Bright Future” brings in the ethereal, before evolving into a ringing psychedelic piece, again with majestic, triumphant colors as in the opening track. The band closes with their trademark repetitive simple and hypnotic melody coursing through the dreamy “The Dandy.”
Try to dispense with your notion of the piano trio. Still, the new The Bad Plus will take some getting used to but the harmonic ranges and explorative soloing from Speed and Monder are often intriguing. Suggest you take to the headphones for this one.