Went to see the Bad Plus at the Blue Note last night. The trio has been together for a decade now, and their intra-group interplay is one of modern jazz’s most rewarding wonders. Last year’s Never Stop (Do The Math) was their first disc to eschew their much vaunted pop covers, and it made a great point. Ethan Iverson, Reid Anderson, and Dave King don’t need “Heart of Glass,” the Chariots of Fire theme, or that Black Sabbath anthem to turn heads. Their own, rather spectacular, material is captivating on its own. They stuck to self-penned pieces last night, and from “Big Eater” to “You Are,” they glistened with the kind of sincerity skeptics occasionally say the band lacks.
Their special guest for this week’s run is Joshua Redman. The group hasn’t had outsiders enter their rather hermetic world (though singer Wendy Lewis joined them for 2008’s For All I Care), and though he was still finding his way through their rigorous tunes, the famed saxophonist did a nice job of bringing some extra oomph to the table. I made a few mental notes.
1. Interlopers Are Interesting
The MJQ invited Jim Hall and Sonny Rollins to join them. The Art Ensemble had Cecil Taylor take the stage. And don’t forget that recent Kneebody/Busdriver collabo. Adding a new character to an old story is helpful. Josh was reading a bit at Wednesday night’s show, but when it came time to head for the wild blue yonder, he brought plenty of individualism to the table. Like his associates, he enjoys a strong narrative and an impactful denouement; long story short, he is expert at the process of editing. One of his solos was the essence of a slowly-built fanfare, something essential to the trio’s architectural esthetic.
2. The Plus Have As Much Power Soft As They Do Loud
The PA was on, but the band was barely coming through it. The aggression that has become one of their signatures has always been a bit exaggerated – they’ve long understood the power of dynamics. But here the bluster was on the backburner, and everything had a more measured approach. Maybe it was because Josh was still absorbing the tunes, maybe it was because the room can’t abide a saturated pallet. Whichever, it was revealing. As King got his Connie Kay on at various junctures, it became obvious that the trio’s intensity has little to do with their amplification.
3. The Blues Can Support An Opus Or Two
Nope, it ain’t exactly I-IV-V, but it is somewhat close. Iverson’s “Guilty” is built on a stark melodic motif that continually opens itself to bent blues connotations – one of the group’s more pliable nuggets. And they bent it big time on Wednesday, with everyone getting to solo. The composer made the most dramatic statement. He’s refined the way he uses silence, and especially in a blues, he fully understands the impact of negative space. His silences left a few listeners hanging, and for an instant I thought I heard some Memphis Slim (or was it Basie?) float by. Always good to pull the rug out from an audience, especially while reworking a style that’s so ostensibly familiar.
4. Dave King Smiles Just As Much As Billy Higgins
They were there with the first sound of the set – a quick thud. They were there with the evening’s final gesture – a hand-slapped cymbal left to softly dissolve. The grins and chuckles didn’t leave the drummer’s face the entire night. The process of creation agrees with him, and King – especially during one high-flying Redman excursion – never stopped beaming at the Blue Note. Better get a drum duet going with that other happy boy of percussion, Matt Wilson. (King duets with guitarist David Torn at the club at a midnight show on Friday).
5. Flourishes Are Forever
The intro to Anderson’s “Silence Is The Question” gave the bassist plenty of elbow room for a Haden-esque rumination. Great to hear his plump plunks fill the room. But as the others fluttered in around him, the designs became more and more elaborate. Lines were multiplied, rhythms were stacked, ardor was nudged to the foreground. Yep, protracted crescendos are cliches, but after a decade of anthemic action, they remain one of the trio’s fortes.