Give The Bad Plus A Break
“ It is this honesty, this lack of irony and cynicism, this straightforward joy in making music as they hear it that is the real reason the Bad Plus are attracting so much attention. ”
A pretty little girl, maybe 4 years old or so, dances and twirls to the music, long blond hair flying. Her mother sits nearby, watchful that she doesn't bump into any of the audience members enjoying the show. A dreadlocked man at the adjacent table leans over to the little dancer, points to the hyperkinetic drummer up on the stand, and asks a question that, though inaudible due to the volume of the band, is clear enough: "Is that your daddy?". With obvious pride, the girl gives her interlocutor a smile and 3 big nods of her head, and then quickly resumes her joyful whirling. David King's daughter is blissed-out on The Bad Plus, and so, unanimously, are the other 200 patrons on this fine April evening in the Duck Room of Blueberry Hill in St. Louis.
A troll through the Bad Plus's press, however, uncovers some dissenters amongst the mostly good reviews, the latter of which range from polite to positively messianic. A recent cover story in the major print magazine Jazz Times is a case in point: a mostly positive article was followed by two doubtful reviews of their new album, Give. The first furiously panned the record, but didn't reserve its disdain for the music: it also launched ad hominem attacks on the band members and its audience. The second review was generally positive but still wondered aloud whether the band was getting so much attention because the musicians are white. If the Bad Plus enjoyed something of a honeymoon with the jazz press following their Columbia debut, These Are The Vistas , then that honeymoon is over, and the backlash is in full swing.
This reaction might be predicted following a cursory listen to Give. The new album is even louder than the last, with more rock-ish production by Tchad Blake than Vistas sported. On many tunes, King plays a 4/4 backbeat or does his "human drum machine" routine, and only really swings in an orthodox sense on a couple of tracks. And while the band plays its first jazz "cover" (Ornette Coleman's "Street Woman", which no jazzer would dare argue with), the rock tunes, including a rather literal "Iron Man" (by sludge-metal godfathers Black Sabbath) are more bombastic this time around.
Unfortunately, a cursory listen seems to be all that the Jazz Times writers gave Give. Or at least that is a reasonable conclusion, considering that most of their review space is given over to extramusical issues: what the band looks like, who their fans are, where they play their gigs, and in which magazines they appear. A typical example is their week-long residence at the Village Vanguard, which one of the magazine's reviewers doesn't think they "deserved", seeing as a bunch of his favorite lesser-known artists who "should" be playing there don't. He states this is because those artists "can't fill the place for two sets over six consecutive nights like the Bad Plus can. In the end, it's not about black or white—it's about green." Really? You mean the Village Vanguard is not primarily a charitable incubator and nurturer of fragile, struggling, "authentic" (read: unpopular) jazz musicians, but is actually a commercial establishment whose goal, not to mention whose requisite for continued existence, is to fill seats and sell drinks? What a shock.
This is yet another example of the jazz "elite"'s long-standing mistrust of popularity. To many, it is simply impossible that large numbers of people can appreciate really great new jazz; if it is widely-liked, it must somehow be soft-pedaled stuff. Heaven forbid that the Bad Plus should play music that lots of people enjoy, or should (gasp!) chat with the audience, explaining the interesting stories behind their tunes. Better, apparently, to maintain your hipster jazz cool, perhaps while turning your back to the crowd?
While there are innumerable cases of lightweight "popular" artists hamming it up while purveying a watered-down version of jazz, the Bad Plus is not one of them. There is nothing lightweight about their joyously cacophonous version of "Street Woman", or about originals such as the propulsive "Cheney Piñata", the poignant and quirky "Frog and Toad", or the mysteriously lovely "Neptune (The Planet)". Seeing the band in a live setting drove home the real reason that they are generating such excitement, both within and without the insular world of jazz: they connect with their audience in a meaningful way. It is this connection that is the most appropriate comparison with the Rock music world, even more than their choice of covers, and it is the real reason why Rolling Stone and other publications who don't focus on jazz are writing about the band (by the way, this coverage in the rock press is another big gripe of the Jazz Times review, although it is unclear how jazz getting wider exposure could possibly be bad, considering its paltry share of the CD market and its aging fanbase).
Watching the band's St. Louis show was a very different experience than listening to Give. Stripped of Blake's production, the band sound decidedly more "jazzy" in person. King's drumming, in particular, exhibited far more dancing nimbleness than hard rock bombast: in many ways, he is today's version of Tony Williams, combining extraordinary power with impressive quickness and precision. Surprisingly, judging from the sound of the Columbia records, he plays a typically small, jazz-sized kit, aided by several ingeniously-deployed pieces of percussion: the most delightful being a pair of baby monitors that serve as both drumsticks and electronic feedback generators during "Neptune". Bassist Reid Anderson's considerable hand strength and speed is only fully apparent in person, and he took a number of beautiful unaccompanied solos that demonstrated his range. Ethan Iverson is, perhaps, least well-served by Blake's production, which tends to place all three instruments at an equal volume at all times, obscuring some of the intricacies of his playing. At the show, despite what seemed to be a slightly subpar piano, his virtues shone through: a strong left hand and a remarkable ability to combine different meters and tempos at the same time, not to mention his endearingly dorky song introductions.
The crowd was varied in appearance, ranging from obvious King-watchers in black Zildjian T-shirts to uptown hip kids to 30-, 40-, even 50-something jazz folk. But their response was uniformly enthusiastic, and heartening for jazz partisans: some of the loudest applause (even from the kids) came for the most intricate and swinging material, not for "Iron Man", or the goofy encore version of the disco camp classic "I Will Survive". Even more encouraging were the three new originals the band presented—"Quadruped", "Let Our Garden Grow", and "Pre-Hensile Dream"—all of which were strongly jazz-flavored and melodically and harmonically interesting.
The Bad Plus are just the latest in a long line of polarizing artists that raise the perennial question of what is and is not "jazz". The people griping about their success (which, let's remember, is pretty small-scale stuff for the music world as a whole—70,000 copies of Vista's sold worldwide, while very good for a jazz release, is not about to make Britney Spears jealous) are the same type of self-appointed jazz Pharisee who once thought Coltrane's "sheets of sound" were an exercise in ugliness, who saw Bitches Brew as a betrayal, and who found Ornette to be a charlatan. The amount of time spent harping on extra-musical issues over which the band have little control, and reviving, in this day and age, racial questions, is evidence of the intellectual bankruptcy of much of the criticism.
This is not to say that there is nothing to criticize about the Bad Plus's approach. The heavy beat can get rather lugubrious on slower numbers, such as "1979 Semi-Finalist", and the band's dynamics are too far skewed towards fff too much of the time. For example, "Do Your Sums—Die Like A Dog—Play For Home", while intermittently interesting, devolves at regular intervals into brutal, pounding irritation (though it should be noted that much of this is due to Blake's recording style; live, this tune came across as less hectoring and more nuanced). While all three band members have considerable improvisatory chops, these are sometimes penuriously deployed, and even live there were too few occasions on which the group really stretched out and departed from their recorded arrangements. And while it is refreshing that the Bad Plus are willing and able to adapt pop and rock tunes, couldn't, just once, the admittedly rock-ignorant Iverson introduce his bandmates to, say, a good Monk tune or two, rather than the influence going mainly in the reverse?
These are, however, relatively minor criticisms of what is still a young group of musicians with much development in front of them. Within little more than a year, the Bad Plus have produced two accomplished, thought-provoking, and exciting jazz records (and yes, the Bad Plus is most certainly a jazz group; if they are to be exiled from the pantheon, then so must be whole heaps of much-lauded fusion, third stream, avant-garde, and orchestral jazz). They are focusing a good deal of attention on jazz, attention that might otherwise be paid to the likes of Limp Bizkit or innumerable Bonnaroo Festival jam bands (nothing against such groups; ironically, the Bad Plus recently joined the Bonnaroo lineup). If just one out of every 50 young kids getting into the band seek out an Ornette Coleman record because of "Street Woman", then all of us who love jazz win. And while a popular jazz band who goes on tour in a minivan, spouses and kids and all, posting a humorous blog along the way ( thebadplus.blogspot.com ), may not win any awards for jazz "mystique", they are sure to bring new converts into the big tent.
It is this honesty, this lack of irony and cynicism, this straightforward joy in making music as they hear it that is the real reason the Bad Plus are attracting so much attention, not their skin color, their choice of covers, or how loudly their drummer plays.
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