Orrin Evans

Activate Infinity, The Bad Plus

Activate Infinity, The Bad Plus

A caveat is in order: a little search through the archives would probably reveal that yours truly is heavily biased in favor of the band and has possibly reviewed every single album since the blog was started. This one had to be covered here…

Activate Infinity comes hard on the heels of Never Stop II, released in 2018 with Orrin Evans replacing Ethan Iverson on piano, and given the watershed lineup change the trio experienced, it’s just mindboggling that they all continue to be such prolific composers. Not to mention that every new album comes with a hectic schedule of worldwide touring. These guys just never stop.

Kicking off with Reid Anderson’s “Avail”, the album suggests the trio is in top form. Strong melody, infectious beat, tight interaction, and that signature style combining rhythmic agility and a well honed sense of drama. Exhilaration is all over the record as the band tackle their own material forcefully, going for broke, pushing and pulling, surprising themselves – hear Dave King’s “Oh” at 2:51? – and always embracing the song.  “Slow Reactors” picks up steam as the trio explores the underlying gems of this cinematic theme.  Storytelling seems to be a popular word in the journalistic world these days. Well, this band has consistently excelled at it, often telling memorable stories in the span of a few minutes. How great to find that drummer Dave King’s “Thrift Store Jewelry”, which originally appeared on their 2007 Prog album, made it onto this one. Pianist Orrin Evans brings his soulful touch to the proceedings, and makes it clear he had been a fan of the trio a long time before he actually became a fulltime member. On “The Red Door”, you’re taking a jaunty ride in the country but before you know it, the tune you were humming along to hits a bump and you’re riding down a rollercoaster, full of sharp turns and wild loops. “Looking In Your Eyes” takes things down a little bit, a quiet rubato theme meanders through a peaceful land, a welcome break before Dovetail Nicely takes over, a well-titled vehicle where all the parts fit nicely together, bass, drums and piano in lockstep, navigating the classic Bad Plus tempo shifts. The thing about The Bad Plus is that everyone seems to be holding the steering wheel, hitting the accelerator, jamming on the brakes, swerving past the obstacles, they’re all monitoring the situation collectively. “Undersea Reflection” is a case in point. The hardcore fan will possibly be reminded of tunes like “Anthem for the Earnest” from their 2005 Suspicious Activity album, except that the production here is closer to what the band sounds like live. What a great choice to finish off with “Love is the Answer”, an oldie from the band’s very first album, revamped with better production here if you ask me. Bassist Reid Anderson’s lyrical tune unfolds with simmering intensity, leaving space for his beautiful tone to shine in the solo spot. 

Maintaining such a high standard of quality and creativity after over 20 years is a rare achievement. Few bands, regardless of genre, have done it. Somehow, The Bad Plus always defies expectations. If anything, love may be the answer.

Buy the album here on their Bandcamp.

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

IMG_0275

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.

In steady rotation

2013-12-15 12.11.16

As 2013 draws to a close, wellyouneedit celebrates its one-year anniversary. How did that happen? It’s been a bumpy road and I’m still not sure why I bother to put these thoughts out there. Oh well, for writing’s sake, I guess, which is a pretty good reason, isn’t it? Here, I want to thank my handful of faithful readers scattered around France and the globe. You know who you are.

The year-end lists are flooding the Internet. With a jazz-heavy listening and playing schedule to handle, I simply don’t have the time to check out the plethora of good “non-jazz” music released in this day and age. As a music fan, though, I like to think that this thing called jazz is not as insular and monolithic as the naysayers would have you believe. Today’s prominent improvisers tap into all kinds of music and extramusical sources to shape their path in the continuum. The result of that blending process doesn’t always work but it is integral to this art. As the aggressive debates raging on the Internet and the blogosphere show, the term jazz is very restrictive and contentious in many ways. Specifically, it doesn’t acknowledge the shape-shifting qualities at work in spontaneous collective improvisation, and it doesn’t do justice to the musicians who have continuously pushed the envelope to move the music forward. But for lack of a better and all-embracing term, we’re just going to have to stick with it for a while! If there’s anything to change about the presentation of jazz to the neophyte, it might involve defining it not so much as a music style per se as an approach to addressing and appropriating musical content – Duke Ellington or Bjork, it doesn’t matter.  The purists will take issue with that view, but the purists are wrong. Get real, purists! Trying to dictate what an art is and what it is not is a pointless struggle. The following list is a random and unrated selection of albums that played on a regular basis or caught my ear, here at wellyouneedit, in 2013. Inevitably, a lot of it is jazz, but in my book good music transcends category. Enjoy.

Dave King, I’ll Be Ringing you (2012)

With fellow Minnesotans Bill Carrothers and Billy Preston, the drummer revisits the standards with haunting introspection.  A well-tended fire smolders through this quiet record.  Huddle up, make some tea and kill the lights. And swing by the wynit archive for the short album review.

Brad Mehldau Trio, House on Hill (2006)

I finally decided which of Brad Mehldau’s albums I would take on a desert island. Right down to the enlightening liner notes (on Bach, Brahms and Monk), this one is a stellar document of the early trio (with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jorge Rossy). Strong compositions and high-caliber playing for all involved.

Orrin Evans, Flip the script (2012); Blessed ones (2001)

The ability of these tight trios (bassists Eric Revis and Ben Wolfe and drummers Nasheet Waits and Donald Edwards) to bend the swing tradition and honor it at the same time keeps astounding me. The demotion job on Autumn Leaves will have you scratching your head first time around but sound magically obvious after a few listens.

Matana Roberts,  Mississippi Moonchile (2013)

A powerful artistic statement from the great alto saxophonist and multidisciplinary artist. This beautiful suite is Roberts’ personal take on Black American history, specifically through her female lineage. The music is a seamless collage/conflation of the various strands of African-American music. The fascinating story continues.

The Bad Plus, Made Possible (2012)

Epic melancholia, joyful abandon, frantic energy and telepathic cohesion. The trio does make anything possible. In the words of drummer Dave King « this band contains some of the most punk energy I’ve ever seen or heard as a musician ». But make no mistake, this is unquestionably as tight and honest a modern jazz trio as it gets. Watch the EPK for their 2012 record and check out the amazing discography.

Vijay Iver Trio, Accelerando (2012)

The award-winning pianist has the critics divided. Undaunted, I listen to the staccato rhythms of bassist Stephen Crump and Marcus Gilmore and nod to the vibe.

Glenn Gould,  Bach English Suites , Inventions & Sinfonias (1982)

To think that all of Bach’s keyboard music was conceived for the harpsichord is confounding, especially when played by Glenn Gould on piano. Timeless.

Mark Turner, Yam Yam (1994), Dharma Days (2001)

Whether the album cover of Yam Yam was a wise marketing decision is a matter of personal aesthetics but the music shows off Turner’s tasteful lyricism and hugely influential voice on tenor. Dharma Days is the one to get. Features Kurt Rosenwinkel (guitar), Reid Anderson (bass), Nasheet Waits (drums).

Eric Revis, Parallax (2012)

The potent bassist delivers a fine inside/outside jazz offering. Serious chops and burning grooves across the board. Features Nasheet Waits (drums), Jason Moran (piano) and Ken Vandermark (tenor sax and clarinet)

J Dilla, Donuts (2006)

The legendary hip hop producer probably owned a sizable record collection. This album splices together a nice selection of soul and rap cuts from the 60s onward. I usually play the first song and find myself listening through the album.

Geri Allen, The Life of a Song (2004)

In the company of such heavyweights as Dave Holland and Jack de Johnette, Geri Allen found sympathetic support to deliver her groove-packed set of originals and rearranged standards. There isn’t a weak moment in this program. Highly recommended.

Darius Jones & Matthew Shipp, Cosmic Lieder (2010)

Smooth-flowing dialogue between two singular voices of free forms. Shipp’s dark low-end tones take on a welcome brightness against Jones’ honking enthusiasm.

Melanie De Biasio, No Deal (2013).

With the pared-down instrumentation of flute, drums and keyboard, Melanie De Biasio’s enveloping vocals push through the ether with grace and a sense of subdued drama.

Drew Gress, Black Butterflies  (2005)

Lush writing, infectious grooves and free blowing make up this alluring album.For Craig Taborn’s solo on the song Bright Idea alone, this one is worth a good listen. Features Tim Berne (alto sax), Ralph Alessi (Trumpet), Craig Taborn (piano), Tom Rainey (drums).

John Coltrane  The Classic Quartet – the complete Impulse studio recordings (1961-1965)

Immortal. What would jazz have sounded like if that quartet hadn’t existed? Eternally inspiring.

Thelonious Monk

Do I really have to drum the point home? You have to get with Monk. Period.

Craig Taborn Light Made Lighter (2001)

Taborn’s debut album amply demonstrates his versatility in the classic piano trio format. A good place to start.

Butcher Brown – A sides B sides

On their self-released and generously free (cop it on their website) debut, Butcher Brown make instrumental groove music that sounds oddly new despite the overt references to 70s funk. An ideal moodsetter that doesn’t sacrifice musicianship for chilling’s sake. Check it out.

Elmo Hope, Complete Studio Recordings

What a tragic life his was. It’s time to restore Hope’s profound contribution to modern jazz piano music. No less than Monk’s best friend and favorite player.

Julia Holter  Loud City Song (2013)

Wow. This one almost didn’t make my list. There is definitely more than ambient and pop to this music. But for now I’ll settle for uncategorizable.

And countless more to satisfy the music junkie’s appetite but that I’m too lazy to write a single word about.

Making swing matter

Photo credit: Chuck Stewart

Photo credit: Chuck Stewart

There is a common phrase in jazz: swing. The concept carries such a powerful charge that musicians often gain the respect of their peers based on their ability to swing. Listening to Orrin Evans’ awesome Flip the Script (Posi-Tone, 2012) has me digging through the jazz continuum for possible definitions. The swing era is long gone but jazz heads can’t get enough of the phrase. So, what does swing actually mean?

When jazz reached its heyday in the 40s, swing almost defined the music entirely. People literally swung to what was still then dance music. Big bands led by Duke Ellington or Count Basie pulsed with a wild but controlled energy that solidified swing into a potent and unassailable force. You either swung or you didn’t, because “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”

As the swing era faded away and bebop broke ground, laying the foundations for a wide variety of future developments, swing lived on, crystallizing into its definitive statement, the classic 4/4 beat. The propulsion you hear/feel when walking bass and hit-hat cymbal lock in on the upbeats always makes me think of a train charging full steam ahead. I’m aware of the cliché but the metaphor holds up. Unsurprisingly, examples of railroad-inspired songs or records abound:  Take the A train, Blue train, Soultrane, you name it.  When that engine gets going, there is a sense that the journey could last forever.  One quintessential incarnation of that subtle association is the great Ahmad Jamal Trio (with Israel Crosby on bass and Vernel Fournier on drums) in the 50s. With such a hard-driving team, Ahmad has a lot of room to run over the keyboard or throw off sporadic splashes of melody whenever he wants to. Listen to and watch “Darn that Dream” here. Ben Webster looks bemused but he’s having a good time (at 3.05). You just can’t derail that kind of train. It is rock solid.

At a deeper level, though, swing is the way musicians articulate their feelings about the music, their signature takes on popular songs of the day or past. When Billie Holiday lags “behind” the beat, that’s swing. When Monk hits the same chord over 20 times on Little Rootie Tootie or inserts long stretches of silence into his off-kilter lines, that’s swing. Oscar Peterson’s left-hand powerhouse swings. Miles Davis’ pristine delivery swings. It is hard to think of a musical feature that is more distinctive and yet open-ended than that.

Today, swing is sometimes unfairly associated with conservatism in jazz. In fact, some people do lament the demise of swing and feel that all these odd time signatures or rock-tinged inflections that are now standard practice in modern jazz are corrupting the essence of the music. I totally disagree. Jazz, by nature, has consistently drawn from all kinds of music. Sure, the swing age is over but so is World War 2. There’s nothing to regret. In fact, I would argue that the spirit of swing is still going strong in some of the current music. Free bassist William Parker released an album dedicated to Duke not too long ago, and it doesn’t sound like your grandpa’s dusty Glenn Miller 78. Snippets here.

There are so many ways to play four beats in a row, that’s the beauty of it.

By the way, I have been listening a lot to pianist Orrin Evans lately. It’s hard to overstate how much of a swinger his latest CD (Flip the Script, Posi-Tone Records) is. It is a kind of swing that tips its hat to tradition while offering engaging vistas for contemporary modern jazz. Orrin is a case in point of how to rejuvenate swing and take it to uncharted places. Listen how these three guys (bassist Ben Wolfe and drummer Donald Edwards) go at the burner “Flip the Script”. Each time the 4/4 beat kicks in, your head switches to nodding mode when you didn’t ask it to.

Flip the script is aptly titled. On this ten track cd, the band deliver a cohesive set that has all the makings of a “classic” record engaging with tradition but without sounding burdened by it. The opener “Question” plays fast and loose with time while sticking to the underlying 4/4 swing metric. “Clean House” is ¾ gem with a nice catchy melody that reminds me of Coltrane’s “Afro Blue”.  “Big Small” is a very slow blues that trudges forward like a good ol’ mule that knows exactly what its final destination is. The Tynerish intro to “A Brand New Day” leads to an epic exploration of “modal soul” (I just thought that up), if such an animal exists. The songs don’t stretch out over 6 minutes but the playing is tight throughout. I won’t comment on the other songs. Just flip it on the player. It’s refreshing to hear swing tastefully incorporated into and contrasted against a larger agenda of modern music. As long as swing maintains that pendular flexibility, there are many reasons to go along for the ride.