Steeply down the steps, to the intimate confines of Smalls, one of New York City's most laid-back jazz clubs. Normally, this Greenwich Village joint's clientele is younger, perhaps attracted by the single cover charge that allows all-night entry. This facilitates easy coming and going, so that folks can catch maybe three combos over several hours. On this particular evening, though, the haunt was hopping with a majority contingent of silvered oldsters, in keeping with the nostalgically classic repertoire of the John Bunch Trio.
The august pianist chose to play without a drummer, immediately shifting the emphasis toward an exposed chamber conversation. The mighty Bucky Pizzarelli
was sharing the soloing responsibility, although bassman John Webber was receiving ample showcase space. Pizzarelli's guitar settled comfortably into the cossetting acoustics of the carpeted and low-ceilinged space. He was amplified slightly louder than usual, lending his sound a punchier attack. Mellow fluidity, with a surface sting. Most of the exchanges involved a bouncing, playful competition between Bunch and Pizzarelli, but there also were frequent partnership changes, as Webber became the chief speaker. All three would inevitably provide release as each number's conclusion arrived, trotting in unison whilst scattering stardust in their combined wake.
This was music as a pristine delicacy, the threesome interacting with tender sensitivity as they rummaged in a warmly familiar bag of old chestnuts. There was a similar feel to the songbook thumbed by Pizzarelli a few weeks earlier at Dizzy's Club with Ken Peplowski
, et al. We might have heard these selections a thousand times, but this trio invested them with unpredictable delight, repeatedly winkling out fresh relationships between the deftly entwined melodies.
Walking uptown for a few blocks, the audience found at The Village Vanguard also seemed to be tipped upside down. Here, where the stench of middle age usually pervades, the tables were mostly populated by brightly frothing folks in their 20s, thus confirming the outer-jazz appeal of The Bad Plus. This looked like the kind of stripling, head-nodding assemblage that would usually be found down at one of Sullivan Hall's jam band shows.
The Bad Plus threesome earned much of their early media attention by pulling out the innards of rock, pop and electronic song, employing rigorous jazz technique to re-form these pieces in either unrecognizable, syncopated disguise or as highly-obvious, anthemic bombasters. A few more albums along in their personal evolution, Ethan Iverson, Reid Anderson and Dave King have been increasingly placing emphasis on their original compositions, each of them contributing equally striking works to the collective gene pool. This particular set only included two non-Plus ditties, running Ornette Coleman
and Gyorgy Ligeti together. The Bad Plus have been managing to open jazz up with superficially direct beat-patterns and charging themes, then immediately subverting the process by dismantling and tinkering in the midst of a high-speed chase.
Speaking of high-speed chases, an early highlight of this late-night set was pianist Iverson's tune dedicated to one of the stunt drivers responsible for two of filmdom's greatest car chases, those that dominated Bullitt (1968) and The French Connection (1971). However, the as-yet unrecorded "Bud Ekins At Home" reveals the stuntster on a rest-day away from the movie set, and the tune perversely provided the most placid stretch of the set. At all other times, the threesome were a tightly-packed entity of highly precise navigators, bombing along on a constantly beckoning final stretch.
It's odd to say this, but King has developed a more brutal directness, foregoing much of his old tiny detailing. He's now projecting with a hyped-up aggressiveness, frighteningly active as he peppers around his skins, detonating, rattling against their rims, slashing savagely and providing the most wayward diversions from the band's forward momentum. Such comparisons are all relative, of course, as King remains one of the most captivatingly asymmetrical drumstool presences within any musical genre. He slashes across Iverson and Anderson's linear flow, interrupting their progress as he provides the trio's most frequent soloing voice, even as he maintains the pulse, always connecting with the other pair at particularly crucial junctures.