concert

The Bad Plus, New Morning,Paris, October 16th

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To say that The Bad Plus has consistently defied expectations since its inception back in the 2000s is an understatement. When I heard that pianist Ethan Iverson was throwing in the towel for other equally exciting musical adventures, I have to admit my heart sank. Hell, the teenagerish fan in me thought that the world was really coming to an end (is it?) and it would all go downhill from there! The simultaneous news that Orrin Evans was stepping in somewhat alleviated the shock though. After all, I knew Reid and Orrin (may I call you by your first names guys?) go back a long time and had played beautifully together back in the day, particularly in Orrin’s band in the late 90s. And I knew that this momentous replacement would not dent my fandom in any major way. What I didn’t know is how much this change was the best thing that could ever happen to this band at this point of their trajectory.

I’ve seen The Bad Plus over a dozen times in the Paris area, in rainy open-air festivals, dim-lit jazz clubs, and nice venues like the New Morning, and never once have I felt that they were resting on their laurels. Sure, I am a biased fan but given how many times I’ve checked them out, my statistics are pretty reliable.

So, my girlfriend and I made it to our seats in the 3rd or 4th row about an hour early, fidgeting with an anticipation that can hardly be described. If my memory is right, the trio started out with a song called Seams, which closes the album Never Stop II. And right away, it all felt familiar and oddly new at the same time. This slow-burner has a sparse melody sitting over a beautiful chord progression, the perfect opener for the seamlessly constructed set that followed. A rubato theme stumbles forward with bass and drums providing contrapuntal foil. It wasn’t the easiest choice to kick off the concert but they made it happen. Geez, these guys can build drama from scratch. I can’t remember the exact sequence of songs that followed, but I know they pretty much covered the new album, with a couple of old songs mixed in for yours truly’s pleasure. Reid Anderson’s emceeing in French added a humorous tone that spoke to the fun they all seem to have in playing this complex and unique music. On this old favorite of mine composed by drummer Dave King, Keep The Bugs Off your Glass And The Bears Off Your Ass (great title)- Reid soloed extensively and powerfully, making every note matter in Charlie Hadenesque fashion. As Orrin laid out, Dave punctuated his bandmate’s phrases with sizzling enthusiasm and a few vocalized “ha ha”(not sure how to transcribe this) before Orrin reentered to take the tune out.

Finding a replacement for a leaderless trio of this caliber has to be one of the most challenging things to do. This ideal replacement speaks to the musicians’ deep commitment to pursuing their art against ominous odds. It’s amazing to hear that this living organism withstood such a dramatic storm without a scratch. Musically at least. As much as I loved Iverson’s idiosyncratic style, Orrin brings something new and invigorating to the table without altering the essence of what this music is about. It was particularly moving to hear the pianist take on these old quirky Bad Plus songs, injecting his soulful groove-powered lines and still making it sound like The Bad Plus. You could hear the reverence for music he embraced as a listener a long time ago. He probably never would have thought that he would be part of the story many years down the road. The joy, the exhilaration was all palpable, the musicians sneaking smiles at one another, reveling in their newfound chemistry that yet seems to have been there forever. King’s arms flew around the drums in his signature octopus style but never overplayed. On the heaviest tunes, they all have each other’s back, dialed in, making sure that if they’re loud, the others are too. Astounding. By the time they got into Wolf Out, I could have howled my head off if it wasn’t for my natural timidity. As always, the trio shares composition credits equally, as demonstrated by Reid’s announcements between songs. Watching and hearing a band so dialed in to each other, so respectful of each other’s contributions to art in the moment is very uplifting. Reid Anderson’s Trace and Hurricane Birds were magnificent and showcased one more time his versatility as both a great bassist and composer. When the band came back onstage for the encore, they chose Everywhere You Turn off their 2003 album These Are The Vistas. Looking back and ahead to the future. One of the things I have loved from the get-go with this band is the joyful melancholia that radiates from the tunes. To me, it always feels like a comforting balm that says “it’s okay, we’re screwed, but, listen, we are going to be okay”. It’s not a bad feeling.

The Bad Plus has a new album out, Never Stop II.  Get it now. And go hear them live whereever they are.

Mr Ahmad Jamal still going strong at 83.

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That was a gamble.  Presumably, every music fan feels the same way when attending a concert by one of their aging heroes. Is he/she going to do justice to the countless hours of passionate listening I’ve dedicated to them or is it going to be the just a sad and disappointing swan song that will send me rushing back to their early catalog for reassurance’s sake?  I’ve probably worn out the Ahmad Jamal 50s trio records more than a person in their right mind should. When Mr Jamal – the man deserves this distinctive title – stumbled over to the piano last night, I started getting worried. A concern that evaporated five seconds into the first song as Mr. Jamal’s fingers rippled up and down the keyboard like rushing water, tossing off power chords with disarming abandon and throwing vamps at Reginald Veal’s bass which happily picked them up. Drummer Herlin Riley and percussionist Manolo Badrena complemented the fierce rhythm section, which was tight as can be. That concept where bass and rhythm assume a large part of the melodic duties leaving the piano to build momentum with off-kilter runs and timely ostinatos is Jamal’s signature style, going way back to his pioneering trio with Israel Crosby and Vernell Fournier. To hear it 60 years on with even more interaction between the players was pretty thrilling. Starting off with Randy Weston’s “Hi Fly”, the almost uninterrupted set mingled standards and a couple of new originals of Mr Jamal’s. The old neoclassical Théâtre de l’Odéon in Paris provided an ideal, though unusual, setting for Mr Jamal’s ingrained sense of drama. Like a classical conductor improbably admitting to be on a James Brown kick, Mr. Jamal pointed up when signaling transitions or turned around to Veal, Riley or Badrena to distribute solo space. Short and to the point, these collective improvisations never strayed too far from the melodic core of the songs but showcased the group’s amazing cohesion and tight adherence to the master’s concept. Drummer Herlin Riley really blew me away, dancing around his set with balletic grace and an infectious groove that was hard to believe. I had mixed feelings about the merits of percussions in Mr Jamal’s recent music but, admittedly, they contributed another layer to the potent rhythmic mix. Why the percussionist decided to growl and act like he was walking offstage at one point remains a mystery – funny though – but he served the music well.

At 83, Mr Jamal lives up to a well-deserved reputation as a pure-class musician and performer. At a time when that generation of veteran musicians is becoming scarce, that’s pretty good news . And thank you to my beloved girlfriend for setting up a fund drive for these pricey tickets. Definitely worth it.

New album “Saturday Morning” is out on Harmonia Mundi/ Jazz Village

Recommended listening:

Ahmad Jamal Trio, Complete Alhambra and Blackhawk Performances

Ahmad Jamal Trio, Complete Live at the Pershing Lounge 1958

Ahmad Jamal Trio, Complete Live at the Spotlite Club 1958