Give The Bad Plus A Break
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.