|The Bad Plus at the Bimhuis. Photo Credit: Jerroen/ Creative Commons|
The Bad Plus
(Village Underground. 17th November 2014. EFG London Jazz Festival. Review by Dan Bergsagel)
On the evidence of the long queue still stretching eagerly underneath the East London Line bridge, waiting to enter Village Underground as Bitch ‘n’ Monk concluded the first set of the sold out night, it is fair to draw the conclusion that the The Bad Plus are rather popular. And it is also easy to see why: bassist and frontman Reid Anderson has the stage manner and easy humour many can only dream of, while the group deliver song after song of impressively tight and strongly percussive music.
Opening track Pound for Pound saw Ethan Iverson take a ponderous straight piano line and deform it with pauses, pushed beats, and the odd atypical harmony. With a deeply-resonant double bass rumbling beneath and building to quite the climax, this is the sort of euphoric fare that The Bad Plus are known for.
As a unit they can shift gear together perfectly, switching between the fast-paced muscular grooves of Mr Now to the rather more clean and classic keys of I Hear You, both from their latest release Inevitable Western (EPK HERE). And they’re certainly still interested in disassembling a song before an audience’s eyes, as on the cinematic chase sequence of Self Serve or dystopian meter-busting Wolf Out, at times the hammered energy of their delivery drawing favourable comparisons with the complex twisting and strongly grooving pieces of fellow charismatic bass-led trio Phronesis.
It was also a reminder of a shrewd remark once made by Tony Platt, who has produced albums for them and describes them thus: “They’re like the Marx Brothers. One of them starts a gag. They pass it on to each other. Then they all get together for the punchline. There isn’t any sense of competition. They don’t out-jazz or out-anything each other.”
That said, a controlled unease is also something they continue to explore – melodies which on first inspection are simple, are subtly distorted with the odd atonal chord or hanging dissonance between a progressing bass and a lingering chord. Like the slightly trapezoidal roof enclosing the repurposed traditional brick coal store which forms the Village Underground main hall, The Bad Plus can present a piece which on first impressions appears unassuming, but queasily doesn’t quite fit. During their rendition of Knows the Difference they revel in the unanchored deconstructed freedom, each instrumentalist seemingly off-piste and hurtling downhill alone until they abruptly pull together out of nowhere. It is this trick which has served them so distinctly on their reinterpretations of others works – the niggling familiarity of the root of a popular tune holding the piece together as we wait for the resolution.
The Bad Plus may forged its reputation with unique covers, but ever since the album Never Stop, the direction that they’ve been homing in on in recent years has been fixed: last night’s set was predominantly of their own compositions. While they’re still exploring their two traditional mindsets – hell-for-leather intensity and slow swelling resonant contemplation – tracks such as drummer Dave King’s Gold Prisms Incorporated approached something of a middle ground: composed, yet still urgent.
But it is still this simple contrast of two dynamics which they toy with so well with each other throughout the set. The languid delivery of song titles and gentle joshing of bandmates is played against the wrestling-style introductions, a brief burst of a stomping entrance theme accompanying each name announced. They returned to the stage to finish with their 2007 barnstormer Physical Cities to demonstrate their rhythmic nous and close understanding with the seemingly never-ending break, as sharp performed live as if they were in a studio.
The Bad Plus are one of very few groups who have successfully coupled avant-garde musical Deconstructivism with accessible commercial success, and on the evidence of their delightfully off-key, tongue-in-cheek closing tune, imploring all those present to purchase a copy of their new CD, long may this continue.