by Alan Pyke
THE BAD PLUS
There were just a hundred people at the Howard Theatre on Tuesday to see The Bad Plus, but with tables set out for a jazz crowd the floor felt full. And while it was an older, stiller crowd than showed up for The Roots last month, we still got to hear the Howard’s “quiet policy” read over the sound system, and quickly violated by enthusiastic jazz heads welcoming the trio to the stage.
They opened with a new number called “Wolf Out, that moved from muted to rumbling and back again. It’s composed by drummer David King, who is the undisputed core of the band. This is fundamentally a percussive trio, and even Reid Anderson’s bass playing is more about stomping appropriately around the fretboard than anything else. “Whose Son Is He” followed, before the first genuinely old cut, “And Here We Test Our Powers Of Observation” off 2004’s Give. Applause for the opening bars indicated I wasn’t the only one in the room more familiar with the older stuff, but they managed to thrill everyone with a set of newer numbers that included multiple cuts from the forthcoming album Made Possible.
From “Powers of Observation” they moved into a quick stomp through “My Friend Metatron,” from 2010’s Never Stop, before changing pace with the quiet “People Like You” from the same record. The latter song proved The Bad Plus can do soft and yearning, too, not just clanking and bouncing and dangerous.
It’s on those chaotic numbers, though, where the difference between seeing them and hearing them on record really comes through. Pianist Ethan Iverson’s stillness and rectitude at the far side of the stage makes a solid visual counterpoint to King’s frenetic physicality over around and through the drum kit. And when they’re constructing their elaborate interplays and overlaps right in front of you, you realize just how close to open anarchy it is inside of King’s head when the time changes get truly screwy.
They’re really not all funky jalopies at risk of skittering off the road, though. One of the new numbers, “Reelect This” from Made Possible, showed off their ability to structure a song. And between the title, and the fact that these guys once did a cut called “Cheney Piñata,” the intention is unmistakable. Its first third has Anderson and King beating out a roiling mess of rhythm, with Iverson (who wrote it) commanding attention with clean, regal major chords, almost but not fully above the rumbling soul of it. Then it breaks into a long, effortful, frustrated drum solo, appropriately played on brushes to mute the anger of it. And the final section is a suddenly martial, almost bitter run bringing all three players back onto the same page. Even without the title, you could imagine it to be a first-term Obama allegory.
Iverson really seemed curious for the reaction to it, peering into the crowd and grinning at what turned out to be furious applause.
Of course, this is part of what’s different about seeing a jazz trio. As much as folks welcomed the handful of old familiar numbers, the fun is in seeing these guys stretch their talents out over new stuff. And it isn’t all going to work, either – “Seven Minute Mind,” from the forthcoming record, and the as-yet-unrecorded “Everything’s In” had moments, but weren’t quite there (wherever that is). Each song is more about featuring the individual players than about playing them off each other or overlapping their separate rhythms, which doesn’t quite play to the trio’s strengths. They’re not bad, but they’re not Bad either, and perhaps that’s the problem.
But then it was “1972 Bronze Medalist” (NOT “1979 Semifinalist,” though boy does it get confusing), which drew applause for its familiar opening bars, and yet another cut from the album that’s out in September, this one called “Pound for Pound.” It starts with King simulating a bass lick with his big tom and bass drum, and rises to a glistening sheen for the middle few minutes that was reminiscent of their cover of the Chariots of Fire theme, in the best possible way. (Note: This is probably going to be quite a good record when it comes out.)
And for closers, they stomped through “Physical Cities” from 2007’s Prog, which always sounds to me like a Dr. Seuss nightmare come to life. When bassist Anderson announced they’d play it to close the set, a neighbor in the crowd let out a guttural shout of “YES!” and it was easy to see why. It’s a hell of a song, moving back and forth between fiercely regimented refrains and individual exhibitions. David King is a truly incredible drummer, whether with sticks or brushes or his knuckles, and it’s the perfect set-ending showcase for him. You almost felt bad for the encore tune, the title track off Never Stop, because it could never measure up to “Physical Cities,” which really belongs under a dystopian Fantasia segment. But we wanted the encore, and were grateful to be obliged.