Trio Savvy

The Bad Plus's Equilateral Chamber Jazz

One of the most appealing pieces is King's "Keep the Bugs Off Your Glass and the Bears Off Your Ass," with its memorable Monk-like hook introduced on bass, and a theme that rebounds between the players. Straggling accents and drumming that engages the beat and never merely underlies it increase the Monkian character, as does Anderson's powerful bass solo. The once ubiquitous Eddie Gomez type of bassist whose every solo raced to the bridge to plunk buzzy high notes has disappeared in the William Parker era, and Anderson recalls Parker and Mingus in his driving control of the low register. The brief piano coda adds a Wallerian touch of froufrou. This piece might get covered in its own right. King's other number, "1972 Bronze Medalist," contrasts a headbanging backbeat with almost blithely lyrical piano—the crashing rhythm gets wearying, but the solo and the threadlike line between the preconceived and serendipitous compels attention.

Anderson is a fascinating writer, not as dry as Iverson but perhaps more ambitious, which makes his appetite for hooky pop the more unexpected. "Big Eater" gets under way with drums and combines a tricky tick-tock figure that implies five or the superimposition of five over four with a swinging four-beat bridge, a contrast sustained in the ad-lib section. Nothing could be more unlike it than "Everywhere You Turn," which, with its sotto voce opening and tapping rhythm, sounds as though it were waking from a Chopin nocturne it can't quite recall. It waxes in volume, yet remains slow and stately over a swinging backbeat four—an apparently through-composed drill in dynamics and ghost of a tune that tiptoes into the room and then backs out again. Anderson's "Silence Is the Question," the album's longest performance, is a ballad redolent of magnolia or the score of a Civil War movie, yet it avoids sentimentality in an arrangement that grows denser as the trio gains organic mass, peaking with foot-pedaled glissandi and heavy block chords—a candelabra romanticism in the context of rock and roll drums.

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

Of the covers, the irresistible "Smells Like Teen Spirit" may come to be the Bad Plus's theme song as much as it is Nirvana's. This version is more focused and dramatic than the one on the first Bad Plus CD. The ominous scene-setting piano chords taken up by bass and drums, the suspenseful build-up as the drums add an emotional fervor, and the release of the eight-note hook and climactic glissando are of a piece, as is the ad-lib interlude, which at first is a trio endeavor and then a piano invention with Iverson's left and right hands moving in discrete yet complementary directions—a specialty of his. For the recap of hook-and-climax, the trio is blown as large as an acoustic trio can be, short of Cecil Taylor, whose own liberating glisses are oddly recalled. "Flim" passes for sweetness and light in the world of Richard D. James's alter ego, Aphex Twin; the Bad Plus's version marries unison piano-bass to resourceful drums more suggestive of Tony Williams than constructed techno beats, but the music-box melody sits there and never gets the improvisational obliteration it deserves. They briefly decimate Blondie's "Heart of Glass," with King's drums leading the tumultuous onslaught, yet the tune's trite vamp reasserts itself quickly, and is much repeated until King ends it with a marchlike paradiddle. The Bad Plus are better than that.

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