New Standards: The Bad Plus

With Minneapolis's Dave King on Drums, an Irreverent Trio Turns ABBA and Aphex Twin Into All That Jazz

New York--

I saw the Bad Plus at the Village Vanguard Tuesday night and they were a hoot: a droll, erudite, bash-and-pop in-joke. Playing in what is arguably the most hallowed venue in jazz, they led off their 11:30 p.m. set with Gloria Gaynor's disco nugget, "I Will Survive," and closed with Nirvana's grunge anthem, "Smells Like Teen Spirit." In the official program for the JVC Jazz Fest, legendary Village Vanguard owner Lorraine Gordon, the widow of Blue Note record label co-founder Alfred Lion, asserts, "One thing I abhor is drummers who go berserk. That upsets me." During most of Tuesday night's set, Bad Plus drummer David King, clad in a Village Vanguard t-shirt, attacked his kit with an unbridled brio that was two parts Keith Moon to one part Art Blakey.

But Gordon is also quoted in the program as saying, "I won't just book anybody. I have to hear the musicians and like them...I keep my eyes and ears open for the young guys; they may not all be wonderful but some of them prove to be, and I'd rather they do it here."

The Bad Plus did it there, with a vengeance. They were not all wonderful, by any means. I found them to be a charming, vexing anomaly. At some points I was convinced they are an important, stunningly original ensemble, a glorious pricking of the pomposity that has engulfed large segments of the jazz scene since the 1980s, when the Marsalis school of buttoned-down conservatives started imposing Wynton's Rules of Order upon the way people think and feel about the music. At other points, it seemed equally apparent to me that the Bad Plus have merely stumbled upon a cleverly subversive shtick that has limited long-term appeal.

Intrepid pioneers or faddish wiseacres? It wouldn't surprise me if the three band members themselves occasionally ponder what the answer will be. Right now, it's enough that the Bad Plus are smart enough, and sufficiently steeped in the complex contours and vernacular of jazz, to raise the question.

The group has strong ties to the Twin Cities. King and bassist Reid Anderson grew up in Golden Valley. Unbeknownst to the other, each attended the first-ever gig by a national act--McCoy Tyner--at St. Paul's Dakota Bar & Grill in 1988. A year later, the two hooked up and played with pianist Ethan Iverson, from Menominee, Wisconsin, for the first time. But it wasn't until two years ago, long after Anderson and Iverson had moved to New York, that the Bad Plus became a working (albeit sporadically) band. Because King has remained back in Minneapolis, many of the bands early gigs were at the Dakota, including an album-release party last September in honor of their eponymous debut, recorded primarily in Minnesota.

I sheepishly confess that I didn't pay attention to the Bad Plus until New York Times critic Ben Ratliff printed a rave review of their CD last year, and ultimately cited it as one of the top five discs of 2001. Tuesday night's performance at the Vanguard, a booking likely catalyzed by Ratliff's praise, was the first time I've seen the band play. My ignorant disdain for the band, which arose even though I had never heard them, stemmed from knowing that King was a member of Happy Apple, an irritating jazz-rock outfit that plays with more swagger than skill. The most dominant and most obviously talented member of that boisterous, slapdash band, King has displayed an over-the-top style lacking context and contrast.

The more democratic three-way dynamic among members of the Bad Plus is a much better fit. Iverson, the trio's Euro-classical, formalist pianist, presents a counterbalancing foil for King's headlong rhythmic somersaults. While King and Anderson appeared at the Vanguard in cheap, comfortable duds, Iverson was attired in a natty, double-breasted suit, the triangle of his handkerchief perfectly aligned in his pocket. Sporting a bald pate, nerdy glasses, and an immaculate goatee, his comments on the set's repertoire betrayed a dry wit and sense of self-parody that deftly complemented the music. "We're scaring them away in droves," he remarked when two people sitting close to the stage in the intimate club ostentatiously got up and left. "That's what happens when you play uncompromising art." Of course the band had just finished a playfully perverted rendition of ABBA's "Knowing Me, Knowing You."

Iverson is also the one who confessed he'd never heard of "Teen Spirit" when King and Anderson first proposed performing the song. He's the one who most clearly transforms pop melodies into jazz with thunderous rumbles and shows himself to be one of the few pianists able to fracture (and create new) harmonies without imitating Thelonious Monk. And he's the one who, by coincidence or design, answered a heckler contemptuous of the group's oh-so-hip pop covers by playing "Labyrinth," his lone original of the set. Dedicated to the Latin writer Jorge Luis Borges, the song derives its title from a series of soft, elegantly meditative piano phrases that extend at a glacial pace reminiscent of Steve Reich.

As the fulcrum between Iverson's rigorous technique and King's peripatetic onslaught, Anderson is the group's unsung hero. A keen listener with a knack for choice riffs that restore the band's equilibrium, he is also a fine composer. His tune "Sources Indicate" bears a marked resemblance to the group's cover of Aphex Twin's "Flim."

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