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.