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The Bad Plus on the Cusp

November 7, 2017

As hard as it is saying goodbye to the long-running triumvirate of The Bad Plus, I can’t say I’m not thrilled to hear the new lineup when founding pianist Ethan Iverson steps aside for Philadelphia’s Orrin Evans next year.

The collective trio, with bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King, is in the midst of an international farewell tour that concludes with the trio’s traditional year-ending run at the Village Vanguard. A frequent presence in the Bay Area over the past 15 years, the group played a four-night stand at SFJAZZ’s Miner Auditorium last week, and judging from Thursday’s uninterrupted 90-minute set, The Bad Plus is ending its first long chapter on a spectacular high.

The group first gained an unusually young fan base (a coveted following in evidence Thursday) with poker-faced, rhythmically ingenious arrangements of rock and pop hits like Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man,” Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” Radiohead’s “Karma Police,” and Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” But with three prolific composers, The Bad Plus defined its volatile group sound through an ever-expanding repertoire of original material.

All of the trio’s hallmarks were on display Thursday, starting with the swooping dynamic shifts, intricate metric phases, and vertiginous mid-phrase conclusions. These devices are integrated into a seamless group approach that erases traditional distinctions between soloist and accompanist, which often leaves audiences on the edge of their seats, ready but uncertain about when to applaud the conclusion of a roiling crescendo as the trio transitions into another kinetic passage.

To tweak Whitney Balliett’s famous definition of jazz as the sound of surprise, The Bad Plus traffics in the sound of suspense, with arrangements that build slowly into dense, pummeling downpours then suddenly open up into transparent vistas.

The concert opened with Anderson’s majestic “Everywhere You Turn” from the band’s breakthrough third album, 2003’s These Are the Vistas (Columbia), a piece featuring King’s exquisite brush work. While he can play staggering, high-octane passages making subtle textural use of every inch of the trap set, King is a master at creating drama at extremely low volume (his Miner Auditorium set with the Dave King Trio, which never rose above a whisper, was a highlight of SFJAZZ’s February celebration of ECM).

Part of the pleasure of The Bad Plus flows from the deep tensions between the players, the way King’s clattering, thread-pulling rhythmic lines push against Iverson’s self-possessed piano work. With its melodic concision and precise lyricism, Iverson’s “Do Your Sums,” from 2004’s Give, sounded like a pop tune, while a stripped-down arrangement of Cyndi Lauper’s lovely pop ballad “Time After Time” felt like a through-composed bagatelle, with Anderson’s supple bass providing a levitating pulse.

For reasons both creative and commercial, collective ensembles are particularly difficult to maintain in the jazz world. As a collective trio that doggedly resists all attempts to distinguish one player above the others as first among equals, The Bad Plus seems determined to continue bucking jazz’s antiquated star system.

All three players have cultivated busy creative lives outside the trio, but Iverson has maintained the highest profile, recording a series of albums designed to showcase revered masters, particularly drummer Tootie Heath, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Billy Hart. His popular blog, Do the Math, often makes for deeply rewarding reading, whether he’s writing about crime fiction, reviewing albums, or running in-depth interviews with fellow musicians, though King has said that the perception that Iverson’s opinions belonged to the trio exacerbated existing divisions in the group.

On Thursday, it was easy to just be thankful the trio has lasted as long as it has, playing music that could have come out of no other ensemble. The concert closed with a slowly unfurling arrangement of “Maps” by indie rock power trio Yeah Yeah Yeahs. For an encore, The Bad Plus offered the sumptuously dense and detailed arrangement of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the piece that more than any other heralded the group’s arrival as an avant-populist force way back in 2000. The Bad Plus is dead. Long live The Bad Plus!  

A Los Angeles native based in the Berkeley area since 1996, Andrew Gilbert covers jazz, international music and dance for KQED's California Report, The Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, Berkeleyside and other publications.