Bad Luck!

How three Midwestern boys reached jazz nirvana

The Bad Plus is playing its first show in Chicago. It is an early-evening concert at the 400-seat Claudia Cassidy Theater in the Loop's Chicago Cultural Center. Reid Anderson, the group's double bassist, has just finished a warm solo full of off-kilter blues runs and deep harmonies, but the crowd response is conflicted. There's some applause, more than the proverbial smattering, but it's tentative and dies with the kind of shushed embarrassment you might hear after the fourth movement of a five-movement symphony. Oops, I guess I wasn't supposed to clap yet. Drummer Dave King laughs at the awkward applause as the full band resumes the tune, an ingratiating, Thelonious Monk-meets-C.W. McCall number called "Keep the Bugs Off Your Glass and the Bears Off Your Ass." As if to clear up any confusion, the applause at the finish is enthusiastic and extended.

It's customary at a jazz show to applaud after every solo. Sometimes the mid-tune, post-solo clap is a spontaneous gesture of passionate enthusiasm. A player has just ad-libbed some soul-stirring phrase, some brilliant high note or rhythmic fillip, and it seems to deserve special acknowledgment. Other times, though, the whole ritual feels like a sham. A band runs through the main melody (or "head") of some bebop chestnut and then takes solos in the standard sequence: horns, piano, and--once or twice a night, almost always at the end of the set--bass and drums. Then back to the head. And people clap after every solo, even when it was one of those perfunctory, give-me-my-sixty-bucks-so-I-can-go-home performances.

There are many young people at the Chicago show, perhaps some who haven't been fully inculcated with jazz-gig protocol. There's a nearly equal number of people over 40, however, a few who were probably clapping after jazz solos before the 30- to-32-year-old band members were toddling in Golden Valley, Minnesota, and Menomonie, Wisconsin. Yet, somehow, the lack of overwhelming applause for Anderson's excellent solo feels like the perfect tribute. The silence, like the clapping, feels genuine--as though everyone has conspired to break the rules.

The trio continues its moody-to-maniacal set, hitting about a half-dozen crescendos of wild, collective improvisation that can be exhilarating or exhausting from moment to moment. Pianist Ethan Iverson careens across the keyboard like Cecil Taylor, poking at the keys like a kid on a manual typewriter or resting on lovely, slightly dissonant chords. Anderson offers big circular lines and Latin-flavored figures ("faux Latin," he later stresses). King calls on a pair of walkie-talkies, a toy voice-changer, and a rich array of shoulder rolls and facial contortions to assist his impressive percussion attack. He jumps around from pattern to pattern, from loud to soft, or from the stand of his hi-hat to a kitchen pot resting on his floor tom with disarming celerity. It can bring to mind Laurence Olivier's interpretation of Hamlet: "This is the story of a man who could not make up his mind." But his restlessness always seems to lead to some cool undiscovered country, to one of those aforementioned soul-stirring phrases or rhythmic fillips that just might inspire spontaneous applause.

 

The commotion surrounding the Bad Plus's Columbia Records album These Are the Vistas, produced by L.A. rock whiz Tchad Blake (Los Lobos, Richard Thompson, Sheryl Crow, American Music Club), would be impressive for any group, but for an instrumental jazz trio, it is a coup--or a "fluke," as King puts it. Press has been glowing and flowing since the album arrived in February, a release celebrated with a sold-out weeklong engagement at the Village Vanguard, New York's touchstone jazz club. New York Times pop and jazz critic Ben Ratliff, who had praised some of Iverson's earlier work, was an early and enormously influential champion of the band, turning in an enthusiastic feature on them and including the group's now impossible-to-find debut album on his 2001 Top Ten list. With the new album, which includes some re-recordings of tunes from the debut, the approbation has come from far and wide. Kind words from specialty publications such as Jazztimes aren't so surprising. But coverage in Newsweek, Rolling Stone, Esquire, the New Yorker, and Blender is the kind of mainstream attention jazz artists usually have to sing--or die--to get.

What's more, the critics seem set on besting each other's out-on-a-limb superlatives. "Where jazz is headed next," wrote Terry Teachout in the Washington Post. "The shape of jazz to come?" asked Rolling Stone, borrowing the title of an Ornette Coleman album dear to the Bad Plus. "One of the most important jazz albums to appear in more than a decade," wrote Stuart Nicholson in Jazztimes (qualified with that vague, cowardly "one of," but still).

The acclaim has been so effusive, it's a good guess the perfunctory backlash has already begun in Internet chat rooms or in the dank practice spaces of jazz's Great Unknown. Jazz has been in need of a makeover, the Bad Plus media squall seems to say, and here is its new face. It's telling that swinging traditionalist Wynton Marsalis, the music's most prominent ambassador for 20 years now, is no longer affiliated with Columbia Records, which now hopes to cross over with the irreverent Bad Plus. And unlike some other avant-leaning jazzers on Columbia, such as Arthur Blythe, Tim Berne, and David S. Ware, these guys might actually sell some records.

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