I’m always a little wary of avant-garde jazz: it has a tendency to lose the average, and even not-so-average listener, what with its lack of discernible melodies, harmonies, and rhythms. It can be self-indulgent; it can cater to cognoscenti the way a dog whistle caters to dogs—most people just can’t hear it. So I went to see The Bad Plus at the Jazz Fest with an open but slightly worried mind. And I ended up very pleasantly surprised. At times, I was astounded. I heard the fabled dog whistle and am now officially a convert.
These guys are virtuosic musicians. On piano, Ethan Iverson goes from playing the simplest, barest of melodies to repetitive mechanistic rhythms to full on finger craziness over the course of any tune. On stand-up bass, Reid Anderson captivated a sold-out Gesu with the most haunting of melodies, and then wailed like a solo rock guitarist. There are no words to describe what Dave King does on drums. In fact, throughout the concert I wanted to ask him, “What exactly are you doing? How do you do that? What dimension have you taken us to?” This man doesn’t just structure time, he creates time, and then sucks the audience into some kind of whirling, nihilistic time vortex. And just as we feel like we’re lost in this alternative time-space dimension, the three of them pull us back to earth with a sudden groove, pause, ending, or new direction. It’s exhilarating, to say the least.
Part of the band’s strength comes from their ability to synthesize opposites. They move seamlessly between grooves and free time; their arrangements feel loose but are so precise; some of their melodies are incredibly simple, yet form the basis for such complex musical structures; their sound is both subtle and sophisticated.
Highlights for me included “Wolf Out,” with its mechanistic, repetitive rhythmic patterns (Anderson explained the title: “Like rocking out, but with wolves.” These guys have a very dry sense of humour.) “Neptune the Planet” showcased their more mellow side. “The Empire Strikes Backwards” reminded me a tiny bit of Charlie Brown’s Christmas music on steroids.
The Bad Plus is also known for their fascinating covers of pop, rock, and indie tunes—they’ve covered Nirvana, Pink Floyd, and Radiohead among many others. But really their covers aren’t covers, they’re full-blown deconstructions and re-assemblages. For instance they played a “cover” of Cyndi Lauper’s 80s classic “Time After Time.” It was like they took the melodies, the chord progressions, the rhythms, cut them up with scissors, put them in a bag and shook it for a while, then pasted them back together, and voila! “Time After Time,” Bad Plussed. Like a cubist version of the tune, their “Time After Time” resembled Lauper’s the way that Picasso’s portraits resembled his lovers; they don’t so much resemble as re-assemble the original. And it works.
The Bad Plus played at the Gesu Thursday 29 June, Friday 30 June with Rudresh Mahanthappa, and tonight, Saturday 1 July at 6pm with Kurt Rosenwinkel. Tickets $54.35.