The Bad Plus Drop the Covers and Go Beyond
by John Diliberto 2/10/2019
When The Bad Plus dropped into the national scene some 15-years ago, they were the Enfants Terribles of jazz. Pianist Ethan Iverson, drummer Dave King and bassist Reid Anderson formed one of the only avant-garde jazz bands to get a major label contract and it was on Columbia records no-less, the home of jazz traditionalist Wynton Marsalis. But The Bad Plus weren’t traditional. They were pushing jazz into the 21st century where the standards weren’t tunes from the 40s and 50s, but alternative rock tunes from the eighties and nineties. They covered songs by Nirvana, Aphex Twin, Blondie, and Radiohead and they did it with an avant-garde verve matched with precision that was like a meeting of Cecil Taylor and Dave Brubeck.
But just over a year ago, Iverson left the band, to be immediately replaced by veteran pianist Orrin Evans. And with Iverson, apparently, went the pop music reimaginings. Their latest album, Never Stop II, the first with Evans, has no cover tunes and the title references their 2010 album, Never Stop, their first with all original compositions. That was the modus operandi for The Bad Plus’s concert in the Perelman Theater at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia on February 9.
The trio, now all bald, danced through many the songs of their new album, as well as several original compositions from the past. They take a controlled approach to improvisation. Never quite cutting free, there is always a map that allows the band to make their hairpin turns at the same time.
David King is the driving force of the sound. His drumming merges Sunny Murray-style freedom with rock backbeats. King’s compositions, “Anthem for the Earnest” was one of the few older tunes. It’s a stop-start groove with King providing that backbeat under Evans’ slow, almost intentionally robotic minimalist soloing before segueing into a Vince Guaraldi-style groove that recalls the late-pianist’s scores for the Charlie Brown specials.
Kings “Wolf Out” originally from their 2012 album, Made Possible, shows the band still revealing their influences, in this case possibly progressive rock icons King Crimson from their Red-era. Evans hammers a single note on the piano while King rolls freely on drums and Anderson maintains a steady bass pulse
Orrin Evans, who, by-the-way, is up for a Grammy Award today with his group, Captain Black Big Band, has a different kind of energy that Iverson. Iverson tended to be more angular while Evans comes out a sound steeped in Bop. But minimalism and the avant-garde are also in his approach. His song “Salvages” revealed that minimalist side with an understated approach that may be almost too understated.
His “Boffadem” begins with a long mournful bass solo from Anderson before he locks into a melodic pulse recalling Dave Holland’s “Conference of the Birds.” It was one of the most satisfying songs of the night and had a driving force even with King playing with brushes.
Even without the hip cover tunes, The Bad Plus operate in a rarefied world of precision playing, intricate, knotty songs, and the ability, when called for, to play with abandon. They did all that in this concert.