Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Bad Plus, Berklee, 9/17/10

The usher who introduced The Bad Plus at Berklee lauded their "avant-garde populism" and career longevity. (Their new album, Never Stop, celebrates their tenth year together touring, and is the first to eschew covers of pop tunes, relying wholly on the band's originals) If you can get past the inherent contradiction of that descriptor, both were on display Friday night. The band started the set with Ethan's free ballad "2pm", then the band went into a run of their most familiar originals: "And Here We Test Our Powers of Observation", "The Empire Strikes Backwards", and "Anthem for the Earnest". (Possibly also three of the best jazz song titles ever) I don't think I've been to a jazz show where so many people cheered after the first phrase of so many tunes. The second half was devoted to the material on the new album: "People Like You", "Beryl Loves to Dance", "You Are", fashion ditty "Never Stop", and "The Radio Tower Has a Beating Heart". The guys gave each tune backstory recently on NPR's Blog Supreme.

The second half was vintage Bad Plus- tremendously tight, with forms taking hairpin turns through tremendously virtuosic meter change. Some tongue in cheek playing- Ethan pounding away in the "Never Stop" transitions, free jazz power balladry on "Radio Tower", and a downright loopy illustration of "Beryl". The first head of "People Like You" was quiet to the point of shy, then the tune built to a point of bombast, before bassist Reid Anderson reeled it in with a few beautiful lines. I've reviewed TBP a few times in the past, and in this music I have little to add.

But the first half was different from anything I've heard them do. From early in "2pm", the comfort with both the music and each other led to some really transcendent music making, from the way pianist Ethan Iverson and drummer Dave King hooked up on and built an idea together, the kind of hookup Herbie and Tony Williams or McCoy and Elvin knock you out with. Reid followed with a solo that reminded you of Charlie Haden, again, in passion and tone rather than content. The band has frequently talked about its passion for Keith Jarrett's American Quartet, and it was on display here. That kind of brilliance- in my notes I wrote "kinetic transcendence"- was obvious throughout. There was an elasticity to the breaks and transitions in "Anthem", as if they could have stopped on a dime.

For encores, the band played their cover of "Flim", then an abuse of "Have You Met Miss Jones" that changed speed every six bars or so. Here perhaps was the kicker- if you got past the goofyness of the conceit, when the band settled on a tempo it really swung. Despite my enthusiasm for the band, I wasn't sure they had it in them (Sorry guys) to the point that I'd happily stay for a set of "Perdido" and "Nardis". Not that that'll happen anytime soon, right guys? Guys???

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