by Angela Sutton
I was very pleased to be able to reconnect with protean jazz trio The Bad Plus at Jazz Standard Sunday night, where the group—Ethan Iverson, piano; Reid Anderson, bass; and Dave King, percussion—was finishing up a weeklong stand. I can recall hearing them way back in 2002 at the Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio, and being impressed by their wild group improvisations of pop hits ("Smells Like Teen Spirit," for starters) and sprinkled with deadly serious absurdities—prinicpally King's plethora of children's musical toys that kept popping up throughout his drumming.
The intervening years have greatly expanded the group's catalog of original material, purged them of some of their more gimmicky excesses, and sanded off some of the more jagged edges of their improv. Sunday's set showed incredibly high polish and discipline, which is not to say, however, that their work was in any way wooden. The Bad Plus has an extremely flexible sense of time—speeding ahead or pulling back, shifting meter, and more—which allows them to evolve together through each work, a fluidity won for them by tight control, and not in opposition to it.
This sense of motion was particularly highlighted in the driving "Physical Cities," a barn-burner of a piece structured around an irregular series of downbeats framing improvisations. The danger lurking behind this sort work, however, is inacessibility—the thorniness of being willing to tip over almost any groove at any time can start to exclude the audience from grasping the core ideas being presented.
Their quirky showmanship and evident good humor, though, went a long way towards inviting the audience back in. Anderson's memorable song introductions, laced with awe-shucks descriptions ("This is a composition of mine called 'Beryl Loves to Dance.' It's about Beryl, who . . . uh . . . likes dancing") or impromptu lounge singing about the CDs on sale at the bar, leavened the intensity. It should also be said that the Bad Plus can be laid-back, tuneful, and contemplative just as well as it can be high-voltage. In fact, when a tiny toy drum at last appeared, in a quiet work near the end of the set, it lent an air of wistfulness, even melancholy, to the close. At the end of a full week at Jazz Standard, the Bad Plus were determined to play not clarions, but lullabies.