The Bad Plus

The Basement, May 27

the bad plus res
Photo: Michael Findlay.

The mating of music and venue is always critical. The last time I heard New York’s The Bad Plus they were on an outdoor festival stage, and all the nuance so in evidence here was lost: nuance that is not just the icing on their cake, but a large slice of the cake, itself.

For 15 years The Bad Plus have taken the sound of the piano/bass/drums jazz trio and applied it to music that might, on the surface, be considered at odds with that aesthetic. The punkish and tongue-in-cheek elements implicit in the band’s name burst through the music, as does frenetic improvisation, metrical complexity, gorgeous lyricism, zany humour and an almost schmaltzy kitsch. All the material in this performance came from within the band, with bassist Reid Anderson, pianist Ethan Iverson and drummer David King composing pieces that define a collective sound rather than individual styles.

The opening Pound For Pound was an essay on the deployment of space, and, as the sonic canvas gradually filled, the attention to detail in the application of dynamics, textures and rhythms was riveting. Several pieces had Iverson and Anderson maintaining repetitive figures against which King explored startlingly diverse variations, with The Empire Strikes Backwards becoming a kaleidoscope of colliding rhythms.

Self Serve exemplified their ability to generate humour through devices ranging from displaced beats and improbable thematic juxtapositions to building an illusion of chaos and then snapping it back into sharp-edged order. Further defining the band was a tendency to eschew solos in favour of shifting the foreground focus between instruments as they explored a piece’s rhythmic implications. Inevitable Western remained more ruminative and Dirty Blond epitomised a love of anthemic melodies.

But contrast is the lifeblood of their music: a pounding backbeat will soon be relieved by shimmering lightness and extraordinary rhythmic intricacy and ingenuity. The collective predisposition to engage the intellect much more than the heart is all that stops a brilliant band being a great one.