The Bad Plus from Where We Were Sitting

bad plus from our seats

The Bad Plus, the Minnesotan progressive jazz trio, just performed in Atlanta for the first time in eleven years,1 and I can tell you it was worth the wait.

My friend Rusty and I arrived in Little Five Points around 7:10 pm, only twenty minutes before the show was supposed to begin. We hadn’t eaten before we got our tickets, but we were prepared to wait until after the show to get food. The ticket office lady at the Variety Playhouse told us there was no reason to rush. Apparently very few people had shown up yet.

So we headed over to Ali Baba’s next door and got a couple gyros. (They were delicious.) We got back to the venue at about 7:25. Very few people were there yet even then. I don’t know if we should be grateful for or annoyed with Atlantans for this, but we got incredible seats (in spite of what would have been tardiness for a packed show)—we sat at a table up front with no one between us and the stage:

Our view from the stage

We weren’t the only tardy ones. The show began very promptly, if you count 20 or so minutes of waiting as part of the show. Which perhaps it was. I’ve been waiting for years to see The Bad Plus live, and the anticipation before they finally came to the stage (with a wizard’s unfailing punctuality) was just a contracted recapitulation of the last few years.

Around 7:50 or so, the band appeared. Without the slightest introduction, the drummer began quietly tapping away the initial groove for “Pound for Pound” (the first track off of Made Possible). It’s hard to describe the surreal experience of hearing songs you’ve basically memorized re-minted in your presence.

And it would be one thing if these songs were four-chord ditties. But they’re not. I think of a song like “Re-Elect That.” It’s taken me a long time to grasp the structure, though not all the vagaries, of that song. And yet here’s the band that recorded the version I’ve been listening to over and over again, and they’re doing another take of it right in front of me—just as authoritative, yet uncannily unfamiliar.

It’s like Monet’s haystacks or perhaps it’s even more like Pierre Menard’s Don Quixote. Assuming their other performances are anything like the one I saw, The Bad Plus live is not a manual copy. It’s not a rendition. It’s like hearing the songs being discovered again. If anything, the live takes laid bare the core of the songs more effectively than the recordings. They were wilder, freer, more tenuous, and more vulnerable.

Lots of words get thrown around about The Bad Plus—experimental, abstract, avant-garde. I don’t know that any of those words are very accurate. When you hear the words experimental and abstract (especially as it concerns jazz), you think about something as cold as a white room in winter filmed in black and white in harsh light—an intellectual exercise as humorless as Andy Warhol’s turtlenecks. The word abstract feels equally cold and intellectual, free from narrative and “done” with meaning. You think of the death throes of modernism, when its own weariness with experimentation succumbed to a mimetic fallacy of disorder and chaos.

It’s like Monet’s haystacks or perhaps it’s even more like Pierre Menard’s Don Quixote. The Bad Plus live is not a manual copy. It’s not a rendition. It’s like hearing the songs being discovered again.

Seeing The Bad Plus live, you recognize that their experiments have more in common with the culinary than the scientific, and what most people call abstraction in them is actually child-like expressionism. You watch Reid Anderson with his eyes closed, embracing his upright bass, his ears slurping the sonic soup, his fingers digging for the right tones until his head slowly shakes with the vibrato humming out from under his calluses. You see Ethan Iverson, stone still, his phalangeal flurry the only external vestige of the wild electricity that you assume must have ransacked him the first time he heard these songs take shape. And David King, thrashing with toy chimes and jangle-embedded rags as effortlessly as with sticks and brushes, smiling to the others, standing slightly ever so often, as if he was so excited that he almost got up to pace before he remembered the band might need him to keep playing.

Each of these men is an extraordinary musician in his own right, but what they are together feels like an impossibility of coalescence. There is no discernible band leader. Each of the three writes songs. And when they play together, it doesn’t seem like any one of them is following anything but what the song is telling them to play. I regularly got lost in the sound during the show—buffeted by sound and immersed in it.

Anyone who has heard The Bad Plus knows what I am talking about. No jazz trio in the history of jazz trios has ever managed to produce this much sound with three acoustic instruments. When all three of them are going off together, it feels like an explosion most literally. This is one reason why it’s worth it to see them live. Based on the sound alone, I expected to see Iverson clomping his forearms down on the keyboard, Anderson just punching the bass with his fist, and King jumping up and down on his kit with a Seuss-esque octopoid pogo stick.

But you open your eyes and see something quite alarming—almost scandalous. Each of Iverson’s digits moves with absolute deliberateness, though seemingly no deliberation. Anderson’s fretting fingers are sure, his wild plucking confident. King still takes time at his most frenetic to control the decay on his floor tom with his hand or create an interval whoosh with a swinging cymbal. Everything is controlled. Yet everything sounds so completely unhinged.

Everything is controlled. Yet everything sounds so completely unhinged.

If their crescendos sound like an explosion, their resolutions feel like a magic trick where everything is instantaneously put back together again and you wonder how any of them knew when the change was coming. And maybe they didn’t know it was coming any more than you did. They just went there when it felt right, and after fourteen years of playing together, it tends to feel right for all of them at precisely the same time. You just sit there thinking, “How?”

And when I say controlled, don’t think I mean the band was mechanical in any way. Violence, passion, joy, obsession, compulsion, weariness, sadness. All of these emotions and more were displayed rather nakedly. So much so that I wondered how I had ever missed them in the music before. And those emotions in the music seemed to operate on the band as much as they did on the audience. The live performance seemed more like an invitation into a shared experience with something the band once discovered and is still discovering, not so much a presentation of something they had created.

You can hardly help but come to the conclusion: “If I don’t know how to appreciate this, it’s probably not their fault. It’s probably mine. I trust implicitly that these guys know what they’re doing.” And if you will just extend that benefit of a doubt just a little longer, it gets rewarded nearly every time. Listen all the way through their deconstructed cover of “Heart of Glass,” and you realize that The Bad Plus doesn’t punish their listeners or hold them at a distance. This isn’t snobbery. Or hipsterism. It actually is better than you in so many ways, but it serves you nonetheless. And they don’t act like you aren’t worthy to receive it. As much as they absolutely own their music, they still don’t act like it’s theirs.

In this way, the band really does strike me as being humble. Rusty even commented during the show, “These guys seem so humble.” It was the music that spoke this as much as the way they presented it.

This isn’t snobbery. Or hipsterism. It actually is better than you in so many ways, but it serves you nonetheless.

And this is a wonder to me. Jazz history is full of infamous egotists. Probably the most obvious frontrunner in this category is Buddy Rich, incontestably one of the greatest drummers of all time. I enjoyed his music long before I knew about his reputation, so when I heard this one recording where he was back on the tour bus yelling and screaming and cursing at his bandmates for every tiny mistake they had made, part of me thought, “Well, he is the best drummer ever. So I guess if anyone has a right be an egotistical jerk, he does.”

The Bad Plus puts that idea to shame. They are so good individually and together, it’s enough to make me want to quit trying.2 But their music, reflecting their personalities, is filled with self-effacing humor and sincere invitation.

Reid Anderson addressed the audience (to deliver song titles, credits, and other news) with such a warmly obliging but deadpan dry wit. The sole vocal performance of the night was Anderson’s improvisational ballad about really missing Atlanta over the last eleven years and having CDs-which-don’t-sound-as-good-as-LPs for sale.3 Both brilliant and hilarious.

But not taking themselves too seriously has been their MO from the beginning. For instance, many of David King’s earlier compositions for the band were named things like “1972 Bronze Medalist” or “1979 Semi-Finalist,” all things that “come up short.” The band’s penchant for pop covers also illustrates their capacity for finding what’s valuable wherever it can be found, no matter how “low-brow” it might seem. David King told me after the show, “We’re from the Midwest. … We’ve lived in New York for a while, but it hasn’t really gotten to us.” No, it hasn’t. And it shows.

The band actually came out to the lobby after the show to talk to their fans. And I really mean talk. We had a pretty substantial conversation with each of them.4 About their process for song-writing and recording and how they met.

Rusty asked Iverson about playing piano for the songs his bandmates had written, and Iverson replied with a slight smile, “Well, both of them are really good pianists, so they teach me things.” I, dufus that I am, asked David King why they made For All I Care (their only album that I don’t love). I think I may have said something like, “I always assumed you guys meant what you titled it.” He laughed and said, “Hey. Thanks for being honest, but that record actually did resonate with some people. And others said seeing it live made a real difference for them.5 Wendy Lewis was awesome.” No. You’re awesome, David King.

Me and David King

Me and David King

In closing, I will say this for the relatively small crowd there that night. There may not have been as many of them as The Bad Plus deserves, but they were quality fans. Everyone seemed engaged and respectful. There was sincere appreciation there. And after the show, lots of the fans stayed behind to express their genuine gratitude to the band. I heard from one fan going out that he had been to the only other Atlanta show eleven years earlier. That’s loyalty.

Would there have been this kind of intimacy and openness if The Bad Plus suddenly got mega-arena-huge? Would I have gotten the opportunity to talk to each one of them after the show? Probably not. But I wish them ever more success just the same.

  1. Not counting one intervening time which bassist Reid Anderson said he didn’t count because it was rather “abstract,” though he added, “If you enjoyed it, I’m not trying to take anything away from you.”
  2. I won’t, in case you were getting your hopes up.
  3. As an aside, I thought his voice sounded similar to Flaming Lips front man Wayne Coyne.
  4. I am paraphrasing quotes to the best of my ability. I didn’t actually record our conversations on any device more trustworthy than my brain.
  5. I suppose seeing it live would make a difference. Part of why I didn’t like the record as much was that the band’s free dynamic had to be tamed to accommodate a vocalist. I imagine that the band probably allowed things to loosen up during live performances. Without the pressure of having to create the definitive instantiation of the song, the band probably acted more themselves. Perhaps they were even surprised to find that Wendy Lewis could learn to keep up, or that it didn’t much matter if she didn’t.

2 responses

  1. Great review Michael. I really enjoyed it and wish I could have seen these guys play that night with you.

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