Armed with a new pianist and eight solid original tunes (plus two original bonus tracks), The Bad Plus
prove that being a working, cohesive band is what's most important to them. Their 13th album, Never Stop II
, sees a triumphant return of the seasoned piano trio, after the relatively graceful departure of their long-time pianist Ethan Iverson
and their less graceful previous album, It's Hard
(Okeh/Sony Masterworks, 2016), of all cover songs. On the Never Stop II
, The Bad Plus show off their brand new pianist Orrin Evans
as a player, improviser, and composer. The trio now enters the next chapter of its being, and it seems the addition of Evans will be a step in the right direction for the group. 2016's It's Hard
found the band struggling, clinging to what made them famous: the pop/rock cover. While an interesting and important component of the band's history, by 2016, the trio's take on everything from Prince to Yeah Yeah Yeahs to Bill McHenry
felt forced. The question had to be raised that perhaps the era of the first iteration of The Bad Plus had to come to an end. TBP bassist and longtime friend of Evans, Reid Anderson
said himself that Evans was "a perfect addition" to the band, and this may just prove to be true.
Still, a 'nothing is going to change' mentality is present in the music. The band seems almost desperate to prove that they are the same The Bad Plus that they've always been. The jazz-rock tracks that fill much of NSII are well within their wheelhouse. Drummer Dave King
's light breakbeat groove on the opener "Hurricane Birds," and Anderson's masterfully kerplunking bass line on "Trace" are almost comfortingly familiar. The group uses their compositions to their advantage, doing what they do best as much as possible.
Evans' first appearance as a composer on the album is track 3, "Boffadem." The song, whose sly bass line lies beneath a melody of unison piano/toy piano, feels right at home on the album. By track 4, Anderson's "Safe Passage," Evans is shining, laying down post-bop influenced lines, making the most of his elegant touch, and understanding just how to place and highlight his improvisation.
"1983 Regional All-Star" is a stand-out track, the fourth installment in a series of King compositions. Evans' left hand joins with Anderson's casually thumping quarter notes as the idiosyncratic yet singable melody parades gloriously over the top. Another memorable track is "Seams," Anderson's sentimental free ballad. It opens with piano, gaining in energy over its 7 minutes. These songs exemplify what many listeners have grown to love about the band over the past 17 years. The tunes on Never Stop II
are well-written and earnest, showcasing a band listening and improvising with one another, affirming that the group has not yet run out of meaningful music to make.