Part of the fun of following the Bad Plus is watching them shift from project to project. The provocative trio, now 15 years old, gained initial notice by blending classic rock hits into their book of rigorous originals. Then they focused on said originals, which quickly became more idiosyncratic and alluring. Then they invited vocalist Wendy Lewis to put an art song spin on nuggets penned by Heart, Roger Miller and Yes. Then they polished those compositional skills a bit more, honing sideways strategies regarding time signatures and melodies. Then they broadened that signature repertory gambit, burrowing into Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” and refracting their favorite Ornette Coleman album, Science Fiction. Now, for The Bad Plus Joshua Redman, they’ve become a quartet, making an angsty record with one of jazz’s most celebrated saxophonists. It’s a transition that’s as refreshing (and revealing) as each of those mentioned above, furthering the breadth of their bedrock POV.
Redman first connected with bassist Reid Anderson, drummer Dave King and pianist Ethan Iverson in 2011; the camaraderie found on this new album has developed during intermittent live shows. Rapport is paramount for any group playing tunes this elaborate. Making what Iverson has called “odd-meters” glide with a steady flow ain’t easy – one of the Bad Plus’ ongoing victories is gracefully delivering such rigorous pieces. From “Beauty Has It Hard” to “Friend Or Foe,” Redman negotiates these cagey themes with the kind of power a method actor draws upon. They’re sometimes fitful, but his horn cuts through the twists and turns like the performances couldn’t exist without it.
Grandeur has long been part of the band’s personality, and while I sometimes think its execution is too florid by half, their musicianship usually speaks for itself. Redman helps the refinement process in that realm, too. The exhilarating arc of “Silence Is the Question” could be deemed bombastic if his cri de Coeur weren’t so deep. As the group calibrates the ballad’s explosions, King and Iverson unite to squeeze every drop of emotion from the mournful fanfare. Balladry gets a unique spin in the Bad Plus world. The somber stuff, often penned by Anderson and ably represented here by “Lack The Faith But Not The Wine,” becomes more and more heart-rending as the band matures. By the time “Silence” subsides, you just might believe they’ve found their “Free Bird.”
Perhaps most convincing of all is “County Seat,’ a dizzy bounce with jazz-ma-tazz feel that harks to their early classic, “Layin’ A Strip For The Higher-Self State Line.” Giddy and joyous, it comes on like Dexter Gordon barreling through a Raymond Scott sketch. Like the liquid swirl of “Faith Through Error,” its forward motion has an inner verve – not swing exactly, but enough expressionistic momentum to suck up everything in its path. Whether waxing forlorn or ecstatic, this is a band that doesn’t stop until you accept its invitation to feel the exact same way it does.