The Bad Plus
Heads Up Records
It's an odd bit of kismet that the Bad Plus's new album is dropping mere weeks after the passing of one of jazz's underappreciated piano masters, Andrew Hill. More than ever, the trio of Ethan Iverson, Reid Anderson, and Dave King sounds like an ensemble on a classic Blue Note Records date. On Prog, the dry, crisp attack of King's ride cymbal recalls Tony Williams, while Anderson's round and generous upright bass tone complements Iverson's rambunctious and fractured piano lines—a relationship that recalls the one between bassist Richard Davis and Hill.
The Bad Plus focus on ensemble playing rather than virtuosity. While this mires the initially promising "Physical Cities," it rewards on compositions like the meditative "Giant" (which recalls John Coltrane's "Mr. Knight" in its vamping bass line), or on the skewered stride piano style of "Mint." Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" comes out a winner, transformed into a contemplative but hopeful ballad. Their take on Bowie's "Life on Mars," however, overreaches for impact.
Like the best records from Blue Note's '60s heyday (Hill's Point of Departure, Bobby Hutcherson's Dialogue), Prog is avant-garde without pushing into free jazz, and grounded in melody yet not enslaved by it. As such, it shouldn't be judged strictly on its successes; most contemporary jazz attempts too little, while the very adventurous stuff can leave casual fans perplexed. The Bad Plus deserve credit for the nimble balancing act they (generally) pull off.