Reid Anderson

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.

Golden Valley

Reid Anderson, Dave King, Craig Taborn, GOLDEN VALLEY IS NOW

This is a godsend. Good music, like all things good, defies easy categorization. That the music on this first album was composed by such maverick figures as Reid Anderson and Dave King – of The Bad Plus fame – and like-minded composer/pianist Craig Taborn, immediately catches the music lover’s attention.  To top it all off, the three Midwesterners have known each other since they were teenagers, so getting together to make and release a first album at this particular time feels like a long overdue no-brainer. It’s coming out now for a reason. It took 25 years to come to be.

Bassist Reid Anderson is on the electric bass and electronics for this album, an appropriate choice for the rock-ambient soundscape unfolding across the ten tracks, and an ideal companion to Craig Taborn’s array of acoustic and electric keyboards. Dave King plays both acoustic and electronic drums, and fans of the versatile drummer will no doubt recognize his deft touch on the kit.

So, what shenanigans did the three friends forming this triumvirate pull this time?  In a nutshell, music that sounds immediately familiar, poppy, accessible, and yet so unclassifiable.

The opener “City Diamond” sets the tone for an album that meshes pop catchiness with jazz braininess, and before you know it, you’re nodding your head to its simple melody,  glossing over the broiling rhythmic foundation of Anderson and King, tossing curveballs left and right.

“Sparkles and Snakes” sounds like an 90s indie rock anthem Sonic Youth could have written while jamming out during the making of their Dirty album. Minus the shifting time signature and Taborn’s electric guitar-like synthesizer.

When it comes to acknowledging and embracing your musical roots regardless of genre and synthetizing them into a full-fledged offering a quarter of a century later, this comes close to perfection. Having grown up in the same cultural and musical environment, the three friends have a common ground to explore and do so with unrestrained enthusiasm and a keen sense of composition.

On the spacy slow-burner “This Is Nothing”, the music simmers out of a dream, plodding along to an unmapped destination. Taborn’s seemingly detuned organ-like keyboard keeps the mood spooky and vibrant at once.

The album has an enveloping quality that takes the listener on a dreamy adventure but not one where the brain just goes to sleep. Arguably all the tunes are hooky in a pop kind of way, but they all have a specific shape and unlikely foil that makes them more than what they seem to be on first listen. You’d expect no less from three experienced musicians equally at ease with jazz improv, 20th century classical modernism, alternative rock and what not.

“Polar Heroes” is a testament to these musicians’ surreal capacity at stacking blocks of sound and paring them down to their essential core. The song remains airy while building up momentum all the way through.

Now “You Might Live Here” is quite something. It has the kind of definitive inevitability that will make you wish you had grown up in Golden Valley, Minnesota, – small town America where three kids playing out of their garages somehow envision a path toward quality music. King’s four-to-the floor beat and Anderson’s even-note bass line bring to mind mainstream 80s pop dance music and make it sound actually lovable, eroding the strongest biases you may have against the 80s sound. Don’t hold back, eat your cotton candy and go for a joy ride.

For music that pulls on such a wide variety of influences, the album is tied together by a unity of vision and purpose: the fun of making music with your friends that celebrates common roots and textural diversity. On “Hwy 1000”, King’s Aphex Twin-style skittish drumming powers the layered motifs down a Californian – in fact Midwestern – road stretching away into the distance. You’re zipping along, windows down, but as usual, it’s not about the destination, it’s about the trip.

I have not read any reviews  for this album as I didn’t want to be influenced in any appreciable way. If you somehow stumbled on this post, here’s my recommendation on a long commute, or just any time of the day. Play this album through and just enjoy the vibe. Golden Valley, wherever you are, some talented musicians picked up on your hidden treasures. It’s about time.

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.

The Bad Plus, Inevitable Western

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As nearly 2 years worth of blogging have presumably demonstrated, wellyouneedit loves The Bad Plus. I remember that moment of epiphany when I stumbled across These are the Vistas (2003) playing on the headphones in the deserted jazz section of my local record store. On their 10th studio album, Inevitable Western, the genre-bending trio bring their nonpareil mix of low-brow complexity, constantly reinventing themselves and transcending the confines of musical categorization. As bassist Reid Anderson brilliantly summarized in a recent interview, « at the core, we’re jazz musicians and we’re improvisers, but don’t consider we have to make our music sound like jazz necessarily. We try to bring a strong energy to what we do. »

Point taken. I would even argue that this band, by deliberately steering clear of the well-trodden path, does great justice to the perpetuation of the artform on their own terms. The Bad Plus celebrates the timeless appeal of jazz as a freeing process, a way to make improvised music culturally relevant in any time period. But I digress…

Consisting of 9 songs, the album features all the trademark elements of Bad Plus music: Tuneful deconstructions, collective improvisation, tight interplay, multisectional songs, catchy melodies played over intricate and changing meters, and plenty of drama. Try “Self-Serve”, the third song. Sure, drummer Dave King pounds out a solid 4/4 rock beat at times but the song is driven by the band’s signature stop-and-go motion, fits and starts that give the song an offbeat and layered quality. They make it sound so natural and yet at every listen you’re scratching your head and wondering how in the world can anyone hear music that way.

“Gold Prisms Incorporated” gets the classic epic anthem treatment, a rollicking train charging through the wild west, picking up multiple variations and rhythmic displacements along the way. As often in The Bad Plus funhouse, repetition is the tricky vehicle for motivic improvisation. At 2.42, Iverson’s solo begins on a folkloric note, gradually building away from the initial melody as King and Anderson continue to restate it underneath. Soon enough, King and Anderson lock in with Iverson’s syncopated left hand line – the new melody in progress. And bang! At 3:48, the new motif takes over, the story reaches its apex, played in unison as King chops the beat to smithereens. After the storm blows over, at 4:25, Anderson’s bass introduces a nice simple vamp soon picked up by Iverson that takes the song to its logical conclusion. That’s a pretty eventful train ride right there in 6:28 minutes.

“Epistolary echoes” is a fun merry-go-round, with hand claps and a toy piano thrown in for good measure. Bass and drum seem very happy to chase each other as Iverson tosses off Cecil Taylorish clusters, seeking a way out of the jungle. Luckily, there is always one.

After 15 years of intense touring around the world, the band has developed a habit of honing their songs live. Studio albums come about as a documentation of an ongoing process, each new album seemingly picking up where the last one left off. A funny game if you want to indulge your Bad Plus fanhood is to try to match songs from various albums and notice their similarities in conception. That’s where cohesive art comes in. It’s an oeuvre in and of itself. If one really wants to come up with a catchall adjective to define this music, cinematic seems to be the operative word. Structurally, it is hard to dispute the narrative arc of these songs, which all have their own story and mood, revealing their drama in suspenseful sections. Just imagine if “Mr Now” had been the A-Team theme music in the 80s? Of yeah, I can so much see Mister T storming out of a burning truck over that frantic piano line. Sorry…

“Inevitable Western”, the title tune, is the fitting coda to this thrilling movie. After the brainy comedy, the action flick, the epic western and everything in between, it’s time to take things down and revel in some Bad Plus melancholia.  Introduced by Anderson’s gorgeous tone, Iverson’s ballad smolders gently and showcases the pianist’s compositional talent and command of the jazz and classical canon, right down to the very filmic last note.

In this fast-evolving and increasingly complex age where nothing seems to make sense anymore, these consummate musicians make complexity somehow make sense. In that way, they are in my book one of the most compelling soundtracks to this early 21st century. Nobody sounds like The Bad Plus. Nobody.

The Bad Plus, Inevitable Western (OKey, Sony Music Masterworks)

Full discography here: http://www.thebadplus.com/discography.php

All the things you’ve always wanted to know about modern jazz, but were afraid to ask

Photo by Ruth Cameron

Photo by Ruth Cameron

From left to right and top to bottom: Dave King, Joshua Redman, Jeff Ballard, Larry Grenadier, Brad Mehldau, Charlie Haden, Reid Anderson, Ethan Iverson

Talk about inspiration. What a lineup! I just lifted this photo from Ethan Iverson’s indispensable DTM blog. To think that this was taken backstage last Saturday at a concert featuring the double bill of The Bad Plus + Joshua Redman and The Brad Mehldau Trio, with Charlie Haden in attendance, can only make me want to do two things once the goose bumps on my skin have subsided and the frustration of missing the gig wears off:  play any record by these musicians over and over again, or pluck away at my bass strings until Haden’s voice agrees to rub off on me.

Sometimes words cannot match the evocative power of a simple picture. This coming-together of peers with Haden as elder statesman is a case in point of the jazz continuum. This art form has always been about cross-pollination, mentorship and a relentless quest for creativity. On the surface, The Bad Plus pairing with Joshua Redman feels like a revival band of Keith Jarrett’s so-called “American quartet” from the 70s, a modern jazz group consisting of Jarrett, Paul Motian, Charlie Haden and Dewer Redman (Joshua’s father). In fact, the band has proudly acknowledged their musical debt to these trailblazers and it’s striking to hear traces of that music reshaped into, well, Bad Plus music. I have yet to warm up to Joshua Redman’s albums but he sure picked up the Plus’ infectiously gnarly songs fast!  That’s enough for me to give him a good listen and recognize his awesomeness. As to Mehldau, Grenadier and Ballard, they fit right in there as well, having shared the bandstand with Haden, Redman and Motian in various settings and embodying a like-minded generation of seasoned improvisers. With that kind of apprenticeship on your resume, you’ve got some serious chops to look ahead and forget the meaning of unemployment. The late Paul Motian is sorely missing from this picture, though. So is Ornette Coleman. That might have been a little over the top.  Once again, Haden comes off as the unifying veteran of this continuum, a ubiquitous icon whose influence beyond sheer bass playing has yet to be adequately appreciated. The LA Times review will give you a snapshot sense of what he heard from his seat.  But what did he actually think? We’ll probably never know.

Selected song recommendations:

The Bad Plus, 2.P.M. (Never Stop), one of Iverson’s signature angular songs, where the American Quartet/Ornette Coleman influence shines through.

Ornette Coleman, Street Woman (Science Fiction). Ornette’s “Lonely Woman”, a tad disoriented.  Also tastefully covered by The Bad Plus on Give.

The Bad Plus, Snowball (Never Stop). Kill the lights, get your warmest sweater and listen to Reid Anderson’s Hadenesque ode to slowness at 2:30. Time stands still and everything is slow, slow, slow.