"If the Coen Brothers put together a jazz trio, perhaps it would be like this, the comic and the dramatic rolled together."
–– The Guardian
I believe this quote tells a lot about these phenomena called The Bad Plus. Searching for a completely new live jazz sound can be difficult these days. That's not to say that it can't be found. The Bad Plus is a trio out of Minnesota that to me created its own genre sound called: classical jazz. I call it that because of the mastery of the movement of sound that the band creates. This band can bring a familiar tune to your ears through a whole different avenue. The classical aspect of their music lies in the delivery of their music. There were times that I was listening and became amazingly impressed by the loudness and softness of each part of their songs. They deliberately create motion within their music without just playing a straight forward song. They don't simply perform. They play on stage with sound.
On February 23, I was excited to attend a show at a venue that has had so much acclaim. At a recent Trey Anastasio show at the McCarter Theatre, Trey reminisced about, as a kid, writing songs with Tom Marshall on the steps of this great venue. As a matter of fact, Trey's not the only musician with these sentiments. John Popper and Chris Barron from the Spin Doctors were friends from Princeton High School. Even actors like Christopher Reeve, John Lithgow, and Ethan Hawke hail from this elite pocket of New Jersey. As I walked the streets of Princeton before the show looking for a place to get a burger and a beer I noticed something. I was completely underdressed in a sweater and jeans! Needless to say, I felt the reverence of walking into the venue to the delicate sounds of the opening act's grand piano.
Christopher O'Riley, host of the most popular classical music radio show on the air today (From the Top), had just started playing "Rider on the Wheel" into "Pink Moon," both by Nick Drake. O'Riley has had many successes bridging the gap between classical music enthusiasts and popular contemporary music genres. His most popular album to date is probably his classical transcriptions of the Radiohead classics on his album called, Hold Me to This: Christopher O'Riley plays the music of Radiohead. His third song was from the Radiohead album called, Hail to the Thief, which he so perfectly joked with sarcasm about the fact that it wasn't inspired by this current administration, wink, wink. The audience then laughed and clapped with approval. This was the quietest venue I have been inside of in a very long time. After the beautiful song and the joke, he started "Not Half Right," by the often troubled, singer-song writer, Elliott Smith, who eventually died from two self-inflicted stab wounds to the chest. One can feel the sorrow, but the beauty in Smith's songs even when transcribed by O'Riley. Then, O'Riley took a minute to promote his new album, which he said, "by some miracle they're available in the lobby." His new album, Second Grace: The Music of Nick Drake, comes out on April 10th. Then off of the new album he played, "Place to Be," followed by Radiohead's "Airbag." Anytime a Radiohead song was played, the crowd lit up with joy and applause and for good reason. He moved that into Thom Yorke's "Cymbal Rush," which he later said that he, "prefers the live version from the Henry Rollin's show better than the techno heavy," version from The Eraser. Personally, I love the "techno heavy" original version better.
During "Cupid's Trick" (E. Smith) and "Three Hours," (N. Drake) O'Riley created a melodic atmosphere. It was like being in a painting, which fit perfectly into this seemingly flawless little town. It was scattered splashes of different time signatures and irregular reality. Finally after "I Better Be Quiet" (E. Smith), O'Riley talked about seeing his favorite show ever at the Hammerstein Apollo in London on May 18, 2006, where debuted the song, "Videotape," a rarity. He was working on Drake's album at the time, but felt the need to put it down to learn "Videotape." O'Riley identified with people who download anything possible from their favorite band, which is what he does with Radiohead works. He had one more song before his favorite band, not Radiohead surprisingly, but The Bad Plus took the stage. This was the song of the night. It was "Paranoid Android." The crowd went crazy, and it couldn't get any better for an encore.
After the intermission, the lights flickered the theatre style warning, and the threesome took the silent stage. Modestly, the trio weaved "Let Our Garden Grow," into the silence. The extremely improvisational and sporadic drummer David King stood out immediately. This was the start of quite possibly one of the best percussion performances by one man that I have ever seen. Although all members of this band are talented beyond belief, I found it hard to take my attention away from King. This was also echoed by a friend and song writer, Garrett Hogan after the show. The next piece was the gigantic "Big Eater," that capsulated changing time signatures and a great stand up bass solo by the song's author, Reid Anderson. Pianist and commentator for the band Ethan Iverson nicknamed the song "Big Polyrhythm" for those who are in the know. David King's "Anthem for the Earnest," was next with more mind blowing, rise and fall, rapid fire drum work. Iverson came to microphone again to ask the ever important question, "Is there life on Mars?" Then he answered it by confirming for the crowd that there was, while starting the David Bowie standard, "Life on Mars." The next piece was prefaced by the lighter comedic side of the band. Iverson told a great detailed story about a trip to a thrift store. He asked, "Are there any fans of the band Saga?" The house was quiet, then there was laughter. Iverson continued, "This song is about a man who walks into a thrift store and finds a great old shirt of his favorite band Saga. The only problem was that the shirt is way too small. He was very disappointed and despondent while leaving the store. Just as he was approaching the exit, there was a lockdown case with watches and other things in it. In that case, the man finds something perfect and special, and he ends up leaving the store happy after all. This is "Thrift Store Jewelry," written by David King. King's drums continued to wow the crowd further. The next story was about a shy and secretive girl who doesn't know much about her past. Barrel is her name, and one of the things that she loves to do when she's alone is dance. This is another Reid Anderson song, which was played especially well by Ethan Iverson on this night. That's the beauty of this band. They are very tight and diverse.
They slowed down the pace with "Everywhere You Turn," and an Ornette Coleman cover called "Song X." Then came the thunder of the shows ending. "This next song is from Canada," Iverson directed, and the band went into an amazing cover of the Rush song "Tom Sawyer." The Bad Plus showed their power on this one. They played the song incredibly with Iverson and Anderson switching out on the lines of the lyrics while King pounded out the parts of another percussion master Neil Peart.
Finally, the last story of the night was told about a ski jumper named Brett G. Porter who lived outside of Boulder, CO. Brett was a 1972 Olympic bronze medalist and a 1976 semi-finalist. He wanted to win the gold so badly, and finally in 1980 he became the world champion. After that, every day at noon Porter would go outside on his driveway and do a victory dance while listening to his 80's mixed tapes. The neighbors finally got tired of him and pretty much sent him to Portland, OR to live. After some time there he got a notice in the mail saying that he was in danger of being disqualified due to excessive celebration. This was terrific for him, because it was then that he realized that it was really too much so he kept himself indoors from that day on. The amazing part is that all of these songs are instrumentals, but the listener can feel these stories come alive. The song danced across the stage and the crowd gave the band a standing ovation. Last, the encore was relentless. David King earned an M.V.P. award from me on this night. He sounded like an entire drumline for the last song. It is truly hard to describe how ridiculously quick he is with drum sticks, not to mention that he does it with such grace.
These are the examples of a band with character, talent, and a future of recognition. The Bad Plus is here to stay. I was glad to finally get an opportunity to see them, and I recommend their live show to you.