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.

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.

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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