The Bad Plus at the Jazz Kitchen: Painting to the edges

When you pop some other piano trio into the CD player on the way to hear the Bad Plus, you get a new perspective on the uniqueness of this one.

Meeting of the board: Anderson, Iverson, and King make up the Bad Plus.
I won't name the contemporary pianist, bassist and drummer I was listening to in the car, because my purpose is not to toss everyone else into the tub of the conventional. I will say it was a first-rate ensemble, whom I would bet the big-eared Bad Plussers admire.

It's just that, unsurprisingly, no other jazz piano trio sounds remotely like the Bad Plus, as far as I know. It's one of those groups the jazz fan can identify from merely — what? 15 seconds, 10 seconds? Five seconds of listening? The original compositions are on the solid side of weird and its adaptations of modern pop that have brought the trio so much attention manage to be both respectful and iconoclastic. "And here we test our powers of observation," as a song title on "Give" (2004) has it.

The sound is mixed very carefully, as you can tell from the group's recordings. So it was at the Jazz Kitchen, too.  Reid Anderson's bass sounded plangently upfront, sometimes reinforcing the piano's bass line, often bursting free.

Pianist Ethan Anderson never dominated, which traditionally is not the case: Many such groups even carry the pianist's name. He could be laconic and soft-spoken, in "1972 Bronze Medalist" reminding me of  John Lewis in the Modern Jazz Quartet, but also florid and harmonically complex.

A powerhouse drummer, Dave King is also capable of sounding prominent at any dynamic level, because his patterns, sometimes wispy or fey, inevitably complement what else is going on. In Saturday's second set, he cut loose mainly in a shattering arrangement of Barry Manilow's "Mandy," turning a cymbal vertical on its stand and inadvertently flinging a drumstick somewhere among the front tables.

Grandiose at the start and moving into a churning groove, "Rhinoceros Is My Profession" was typical in both its title and the music itself of Bad Plus's finely honed quirkiness. "Overqualified," is how spokesman Anderson described the rhinoceros in question, in characteristically droll remarks from the stage. Similarly, a Bad Plus song can seem both overdetermined and comfortable in the neighborhood of free jazz. Its take on Ornette Coleman's "Street Woman" honored that master in addition to putting as fresh a stamp on it as the group did upon Peter Gabriel's "Games Without Frontiers."

The Bad Plus pays a lot of attention to endings. They are like those abstract expressionists who fussed about the edges of the canvas as much as the center. There is no such thing as an out-chorus: The men sometimes offer a heavily punctuated coda, but often tease the listener about just where they will stop. This is part and parcel of their time-tested method of seeming to assemble an arrangement out of scraps, notions and doodads. They make everything fit; King in particular is superb in fashioning apt transitions between one pattern and the next.

The audience seemed to me younger than the usual Jazz Kitchen crowd for a touring acoustic group. The response to every tune was warm and sustained, with a minimum of mindless whooping. The fans were unusually attentive, a tribute to the mesmerizing power of the band. In quiet passages, the only chatter evident came from the bar in the next room. The music can sometimes try the patience, as its forward momentum becomes hard to discern. Where are they going with this? one wonders.

But everyone learns to settle in and process the ineffable Bad Plusness. It's a formula that has brought international success for nearly two decades to a trio like none other. You sort of know what you're going to get, yet Iverson, Anderson, and King don't seem to have become set in their ways. It's always a pleasure to have them stop by for a spell. And what a spell it is!


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