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Business News/ Opinion / Blogs/  The addition game

The addition game

Melding rock, pop and blues with jazz, the Bad Plus is redefining the way a piano trio makes music

They are so bad that they are good.Premium
They are so bad that they are good.

Much like the manner in which Morpheus harangued Neo in Matrix, it can well be asked: What is real jazz? How do you define real jazz?  Like the dumbfounded protagonist in the cult movie, all we can do is to gulp the red pill to see how deep the rabbit hole goes. On the way we are sure to meet the Bad Plus, a leaderless ensemble of bassist Reid Anderson, drummer David King and pianist Ethan Iverson, which bills itself the loudest trio in jazz and invariably raise the hackles of purists.

For a genre that clamors for innovation, it’s ironic that every radical step in jazz is often panned. Thelonious Monk in his time was told he doesn’t know how to play the piano, Ornette Coleman shocked the socks off people who derided his music as noise, the genius of Phineas Newborn was dubbed as shallow—the examples are many. It wasn’t too much of a surprise that the Bad Plus, with its capricious bassist, drummer who would have been at home at a heavy metal band and a pianist whose right hand doesn’t always agree with his left, would draw a fair amount of flak when the band made its appearance at the turn of the century.

Their major label debut, These are the Vistas (2003), caused an absolute uproar. Although seven out of 10 songs were original compositions, the three that were covers drew the most attention. It’s not every day that a jazz band takes Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, Blondie’s Heart of Glass and the Aphex Twin’s Flim and turns them inside out. The Nirvana number was particularly striking, where a tuneful approach took nothing away from the implied menace. Despite the often critical reviews, there was no denying that Anderson, Iverson and King were powerful musicians who were capable of playing intelligent music.

The Bad Plus arrived with a bang and never really looked back. It wasn’t empty boast when they called themselves the loudest threesome in jazz. Taken on the merit of the music they played, often at unconventional venues, it was clear that they had something entirely new to offer. It wasn’t the typical piano in front with two gentle accompanists. King can be accused of many things but gentle is not one of them. One of the more aggressive drummers around, he and Anderson often turned the idea of a rhythm section on its head, taking the lead in intricate ways that is at once musically pleasing.

The Bad Plus followed up Vistas with the critically acclaimed Give (2004), but the one I liked better was Suspicious Activity? (2005) that, despite the band’s reputation of doing rock and pop covers, featured nice originals out of 10. Filled with the energy of rock, the drums and bass-driven funky tunes came together to form a fresh sound that was nothing but jazz. The one cover, the theme from Chariots of Fire by Vengalis, was an exceptional take, and so was the album opener Prehensile Dream.

By then the dust of controversy had settled (never completely though) and the group continued to push the envelope, with fans not lucky enough to attend live gigs waiting for each new release. They did not disappoint with Prog (2007), proclaiming their progressive tendencies, and Never Stop (2010), the first album comprising solely of originals. There was a minor hiccup in between with For All I Care (2008), which featured only covers in collaboration with rock vocalist Wendy Lewis that didn’t work too well with me. If Never Stop was vintage Bad Plus, the next offering, Made Possible (2012), was even better.

It was but a matter of time when the Bad Plus collaborated with a horn man. The group’s latest offering, The Bad Plus Joshua Redman (2015), was released last month with the star tenor saxophonist collaborating organically with the genre-benders. For people unfamiliar with the sound of the Bad Plus, this album could be exciting fare even within the traditional confines of the jazz quartet, if anything the group does can be called traditional.

Tracing its origins from Redman and the Bad Plus' collaborative stint at New York's Blue Note jazz club in 2012, the album features new compositions as well as earlier favorites such as Dirty Blonde and Silence Is the Question. The almost telepathic understanding between the phenomenal sax man (more of Redman in a later column) and the Bad Plus shows up contemporary jazz in the best light and is not to be missed.

In Matrix, Morpheus once told Neo, “There's a difference between knowing the path and walking the path." In jazz, news paths are being broken and the Bad Plus is certainly walking on one of them.

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Jazz Oil is a fortnightly column on stories from the world of jazz. For the music that it features, visit here.

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Published: 10 Jun 2015, 04:28 PM IST
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