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The Bad Plus

The Village Vanguard, New York, New York

December 30, 2008

A little business, a lot of casual. The members of The Bad Plus look less like performers than the awkward guys who forgot to dress up for the dinner party that is 9:00 at the Village Vanguard. Thirty-something yuppies sip at their Cabernet Sauvignon while three dudes jam in the corner. Go to a Bad Plus show and you’ll be as likely to hear a Nirvana cover as a heavily warped version of a Ligeti composition. Bassist Reid Anderson wails out surreal, textured lines while drummer David King lays out a frenetic beat complete with baby toy tambourines and other contraptions as garnishes. Rock out with your Jazz-Purists’-Shock out. Jazz you can almost dance to?

No kidding.

Jazz is a genre wondering how the hell it got so pretentious, and The Bad Plus is here to save it. Just yesterday jazz was about freedom, acceptance, and unity. Now it’s a specimen, an object of study, leashed close to the ivory tower. Not that there isn’t new jazz out there — new artists enter the scene every day, with fresh, interesting ideas. It’s just that the study and appreciation of jazz has been grounded to the conservatory and subcultural cognoscenti: an awkward mix of academics and neo-hepcats. Half of the jazz listeners I bump into are players themselves. It’s one big self-preaching choir. Non-listeners are afraid to get into it, assuming that they lack the musical knowledge to understand jazz, or worse, dismissing it as worthless snobbery.

Snobbery, perhaps, but not worthless, the Bad Plus contends. And they prove their point by bringing their music down to earth.

Listeners new to jazz will be attracted at first by snippets of songs they might have heard in the pop world (The Bad Plus opened their December 30 set with an ABBA cover). It’s just barely reminiscent of the original work, with pianist Ethan Iverson floating from idea to idea with virtuosic, yet emotionally schizophrenic lines. If nothing else, the Bad Plus makes for good comedy. They pepper the set with musical and verbal jokes (the way Mozart and Beethoven used to do it) to keep the mood light and the cognac flowing. Spontaneous synchronicity between instruments is intensely musical, but the sonic interactions between the players are at times rightfully clownish. They look and sound like a bunch of dudes, just chilling.

Jazzbos will be glad to hear a lot of genuine innovation going on here. While the covers of Black Sabbath and the Bee Gees attract a lot of attention, those works comprise a small portion of The Bad Plus’ repertoire. All three are talented composers in their own right, with distinct flavors to their work. The December 30 show was a good showcase of Reid Anderson’s melodic style.

In general, the Bad Plus spends much less time with the traditional idea of the “solo” than with group improvisational intercommunication. Only briefly will players really show off. The Bad Plus is more interested in a single coherent sound: where abstruse meets fun, where it’s okay that you can’t tell Cecil Taylor from Squeeze, and equally okay that you’ve transcribed every solo from Miles’ Prestige recordings. Sit back, relax, and think as hard as you want to.