Ornette Coleman didn’t put in a cameo with pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson, and drummer David King at their intrepidly programmed Newark summit meeting, but he was the baddest member of the Bad Plus nevertheless. His influence anchored the trio’s eight-song opening set—and not just on his “Street Woman,” the only cover tune. Iverson’s elastic lyricism, and the strenuous crescendos fashioned by his bandmates, can both be traced to Ornette-ology. No wonder the musicians occupied a conspicuous stage-right box throughout Coleman’s performance.
Coleman was a porkpied piper, leading an excursion at once slyly nostalgic and stubbornly abstruse. His white alto saxophone, played in full voice but with cerebral restraint, overlaid scribbles on a dutifully turbulent rhythm section. Greg Cohen’s bass was plucked, Tony Falanga’s was bowed, and Coleman’s son Denardo percussed polyrhythmically behind a Plexiglas wall. Coleman switched to trumpet early and played it often, but never for longer than a minute, as if blasts of counterpoint were its only purpose. He played violin too, with a twitchy atonality that would have sounded menacing if not for the precedent of Carl Stalling’s cartoon music. Coleman’s songs also cloaked their tensions in familiarity: all 10 fulfilled bebop’s head-solo-head prescription, and roughly half concluded with a full-ensemble snap. But the heads were flinty and angular, and the middle sections got unraveled and abstracted, polyphonically, by the tireless Falanga and Cohen.
A good night for bassists: Anderson started the concert off with an introduction, rife with double- stops, that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in Coleman’s part of the evening. Later, on the Coleman-esque ballad-epic “Knows the Difference,” Anderson served as a visual pivot while his cohorts unwittingly jolted up and down on either side, riding elation like a seesaw. Nothing in Coleman’s performance emoted so directly, but most of the hall was entranced enough without it. NJPAC subscribers who felt otherwise walked out in a trickle that gradually became a stream, looking more befuddled than offended. But the young band stayed till the final ovation, and so did its fans.