The Bad Plus
August 2, 2011
@Dinkelspiel Auditorium, Stanford University
Better than: Throwing a piano, bass, and drum set into the eye of a musically inclined tornado.
The Bad Plus is a band that likes to challenge its audience. Reid Anderson (bass), Ethan Iverson (piano), and David King (drums) play genre-bending jazz in essentially every mood, time signature, and volume level -- and King is almost impossible to photograph without ending up with a blurry mess of hands and arms and cymbals. But hot damn, do they know how to make good music.
During the second set, "In Stitches" summed up more or less everything you need to know about the group. The song began with King alone on drums, tenderly stirring up sounds from his set using a mallet and a Hasbro children's toy (one of his bizarrely fascinating staples). The sound was sparse, with Iverson and Anderon adding only a few notes here and there, eventually opening up into a pleasing melody. The result was beautiful, like a warm summer's day in a quiet park rendered in music.
Incredibly slowly but just as surely, the song began to change and build: This tranquil day was about to give way to a tornado.
Over the next five or six minutes, the three band members gradually ratcheted things up until each one played with frantic intensity, all soloing and improvising simultaneously with unbelievable speed and skill.
Just when King's snare drum seemed loud enough to be inside my skull and the collective fury threatened to bring the building down, the music subsided and settled back into the introductory melody, finally coming to a close with Anderson plucking a single dissonant note on his bass and letting the final sound hang in the startling silence.
Other songs traversed the same spectrum, if generally limited to a narrower section. In "Giant," Anderson began the song alone with a gorgeous, minute-long bass melody; in "And Here We Test Our Powers of Observation," he held down a thumping groove.
Iverson played the part of the unintentionally but somehow undeniably charming host. Before starting the last song of the first set, he instructed the audience to make good use of the intermission: "It's very important to drink lots of water," he deadpanned. Behind the piano, his memorable melodies in songs like "Never Stop" added much-needed hooks and refrains, and his improvisational skills were equally noteworthy.
The highlight of the night, however, was undoubtedly King. King did not simply play the drums -- he played every single part of his set, whether he was clinking his cymbal stands, or (in one particularly impressive moment) grabbing the metal snares underneath his snare drum. His playing was as melodic as it was rhythmic, if not more so, and his solos left audience members stunned (we know this because we heard audible exhales at the end of almost every one).
Seated closer his side of the stage, we were sometimes distracted by his elaborate playing (especially given the sometimes echoey acoustics of the auditorium), but we can't complain too much about something so fun to watch.
Again, the Bad Plus is a challenging group. Some of its music is dense, chaotic, and difficult to parse. The song "2 p.m.," for example, consisted mostly of extended solos for all three musicians simultaneously -- indulgent, but the Bad Plus can pull it off because of its members' talent and their ability to play completely and entirely together. (If you don't believe me, listen to this, which the band performed perfectly in its encore.)
Other than an interpretation of Stravinsky's Apollo ballet score to begin the show, the band stuck entirely to originals, which is somewhat uncharacteristic for the group but is perhaps becoming more common. (Their newest album, 2010's Never Stop, is their first not to include any covers.) The band also debuted a new original song, "Pound for Pound," which Iverson said would be on the next album.
The Bad Plus is playing two sets tonight at Kuumbwa Jazz in Santa Cruz. If you can make it there, do it -- you won't regret it.
The Empire Strikes Backwards
Anthem for the Earnest
Pound for Pound
We Come from the Future
And Here We Test Our Powers of Observation
My Friend Metatron
Random notebook dump: "Dave King = the shit."
Overheard in the crowd: Random audience member during a drum solo: "Ooooooh. Oh my God."