Trio Savvy

The Bad Plus's Equilateral Chamber Jazz

A few weeks ago, traveling from the completely sold-out Cassandra Wilson gig at the Jazz Standard to the completely sold-out Bad Plus gig at the Village Vanguard, one could jump to the conclusion that jazz had, at long last, been blasted out of the doldrums. The winds blew emphatically from the audience, which seemed renovated and primed, aglow in anticipation and on its feet at the curtain, though some of us may need remedial repertory catch-up. Sonny Rollins plays "Sweet Leilani" because that's what he grew up with, which is the same reason Wilson sings "Lay Lady Lay" and the Bad Plus (or two-thirds of them) cover Blondie. It's a sign of prime-time preparedness that the Bad Plus's covers are rarely as good as their originals; indeed, the part of one's brain wired for cynicism might conclude that they choose cloying pop because their originals seem so much more compelling by comparison—whiskey to wipe away the taste of grenadine. That might explain why they call themselves the Bad Plus.

On the other hand, since the Bad Plus's few covers are chosen less for melodic or harmonic grounding than for hooks—those repeated morsels or sweetened riffs that nag the memory like nursery tunes or '50s commercials—they serve the same useful function as standards, orienting and flattering the audience. This falls under the rubric of admirable commercial savvy, and surely contributes to the increasing enthusiasm for a group that has the disarming appearance of an adventurous jazz piano trio. In truth, it's an equilateral chamber group that merges jazz, pop, and the conservatory in a heady and original way, accessible and seriously playful.

The Bad Plus consist of pianist Ethan Iverson (the third who never heard of bands like Nirvana), drummer Dave King (the third who is better known in Midwest rock circles than in East Coast jazz), and bassist Reid Anderson (the third who seems to choose most of the repertory). They've played together on and off since 1989, and the difference between the Bad Plus and a piano trio is instantly evident in a comparison of the former's new CD, These Are the Vistas (Columbia), and the best of Ethan Iverson's trio CDs, The Minor Passions (Fresh Sounds, 1999), with Anderson and rough-and-ready drummer Billy Hart.

Their theme song is Nirvana's theme song.
photo: Chris Floyd
Their theme song is Nirvana's theme song.

Everything from the recording mix to the division of solos and tunes underscores the ensemble's cooperative ethos. But the distribution of work isn't what turns the trick as much as the collective rising tide. Even during an ostensible solo, the listener is always conscious of the trio, and the arrangements are so bent on making the most of dynamics and change-ups that a solo never gets too far before turning abruptly into a group conceit. In its early days, the Modern Jazz Quartet occasionally appeared as the Milt Jackson Quartet, which some wags insisted was the true meaning of MJQ. Yet a vibes quartet wouldn't have lasted two years with the same personnel—we know what it would have sounded like from Jackson's many albums. John Lewis's textures prevented the MJQ from becoming routine. The Bad Plus's longevity will depend on how long they can thrive amid group textures.

Bill Evans's 1961 Vanguard records upped the ante on trio interaction, though the listener was never in doubt as to who the leader was or whose turn it was to solo. Before Evans, Art Tatum and Nat Cole explored trio interplay in groups with guitar and bass, while other pianists favored one partner over another—Ellington his bassist, Monk his drummer—and Ahmad Jamal created a trio-centric music that, paradoxically, gave his sidemen little freedom. Miles Davis's '60s rhythm section suggested a near total autonomy of attack, as does David S. Ware's '90s rhythm section, in which Matthew Shipp, William Parker, and a series of drummers have enjoyed immense improvisational latitude. Still, one knows who is leading and who isn't. The Bad Plus are closer to the MJQ template, and arrive at a time when equilateral trios are blooming. Bill Charlap and Jason Moran are undeniably leaders of their trios, but Charlap's proclivity for thoughtful rests and Moran's for compositional gambits, as well as their shared responsiveness to trio dynamics, define their groups as interdependently rigorous.

In taking chamber unity up another notch, the Bad Plus create high-energy tableaux while sacrificing some of the jazzier pleasures of elaborate solos; sometimes, for example, you want Iverson to stretch out for another chorus or two, unequivocally leading the others. At the Vanguard, a greater sense of improvisational freedom suggested itself than on the CD, yet These Are the Vistas fulfills the promise of 2000's The Bad Plus (Fresh Sound), and may be a hard act to follow. The simplest piece reveals the group's compositional design. Iverson's "Guilty" is a blues based on a brief figure with an ambiguous tonal center, developed over a very deliberate backbeat and substitute chords. It consists of a four-bar intro and six choruses: theme, bass solo, piano solo, theme. But the solos aren't just solos, and the rising and falling from head to head arcs in a sustained curve. As Anderson's solo peaks, Iverson adds to the intensity and then takes over with dissonant chords before retreating into single-note blues figures; in his second chorus, Iverson's left hand counterpunches the blues figures, augmenting a crescendo of surprisingly ripe melodic character and feeling, before coming to earth as he approaches the head. The performance is too well grooved to permit an extra chorus by anyone. That's not true of Iverson's "Boo Wah," an impressive piece that opens with a kind of tribal drum thumping and develops in call-and-response phrases requiring piano-drums unison, piano-bass unison, and trio unison; it includes a fast secondary theme and an explosive improvisational interlude, but because it's basically composed rather than elaborated, it feels more like a conservatory exercise than a developed performance.

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