Ethan Iverson, pianist of The Bad Plus, came onstage last night in a dapper suit and a fishing hat. (apparently a gift from Jason Moran at last week's Blue Note hit) The comedic effect of this unusual outfit was to make it look like everything he wore didn't fit quite right.
The music felt a little like that as well. The set had the humor of watching someone try to put on a pair of pants that are six sizes too big, and the skill of someone who could probably tailor those pants precisely with a pair of scissors and leftover string. The set was comprised primarily of originals, a few new, most from their most recent album, "Suspicious Activity?", along with one of their famous covers, a remarkably subdued version of the Beegee's disco classic (Ethan's descriptor, not mine) "How Deep is Your Love". There was no distance in either style or content between the originals and the cover; depending on your perspective, the music was treated with the same level of earnestness, or the same level of irreverence. (They did, after all, play an "Anthem for the Earnest") Reid's solo on "You and I is a Comfort Zone", his tune, was equal parts Charlie Haden and Bach. Ethan's lines exuded clarity even when they were at their furthest harmonic reaches. Dave King bounces on and off the drums with his sticks (including a shaker that doubled as a drumstick half the time), with his hands, with his whole body.
Much of the music coexisted on another level as well. TBP are, at least 50% of the time, the model of Ornette Coleman's Harmelodics, at least as I understand it. (At a workshop once, David Murray said that anyone who says they really know what Harmelodics is is full of it. He said he's talked with Ornette at length about it, and said he didn't have a clue.) The Ornette influence was clear even before they played his "Song X", with the pregnant pause worthy of a mother three weeks overdue. Everything in the music coexists equally, there are fewer solos per se than in most bands' sets, and the playing "behind" the solo really isn't behind it, but next to it. (This was reinforced be the fantastic work their sound guy did.) The effect is music that comes at you like a solid object, all at once, again frustrating any attempt to label it.
Finally, live, the band is hilarious. They laugh a lot on stage, and I laughed more than I have at any gig in a long time. They don't make many obvious jokes, but the irreverence they bring to the music is palpable all the time; they play with their tongues set firmly in their cheeks. Ethan, fishing hat and all, doubled as the evening's MC, setting up OG (Original Gentleman) with a story about Elvin Jones and a donut shop in Cleveland, and Dave King's new "1980 World Champion" with a reflection on a skiier who never quite got over winning the gold, much to the dismay of his neighbors.
The Bad Plus appear Friday and Saturday night at the Regattabar, Harvard Square Cambridge. Tickets to the show were supplied by TBP. Full disclosure- I am also working on a web project with Ethan, details TBA.