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The Bad Plus, Still Totally Committed

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Wednesday September 22, 2010

(From The New York Times)

Ten years ago the Bad Plus came together in a warm rush of camaraderie and with a clear grasp of novelty. Here was a jazz piano trio with the heart and gall of a stadium rock band, grappling wryly but directly with anthemic covers and its own scarcely less anthemic originals. The group was brash and clever, its crooked sincerity often mistaken for smug acidity. A debate arose in jazz circles over the entitlements of such a group, what it meant and whether it deserved what it got.

The band outlasted the debate; outsmarted it besides. Over the last decade, its fraternal order of contributors — the pianist Ethan Iverson, the bassist Reid Anderson and the drummer David King — have held fast, patiently refining their brand of superhero jazz. Their habit of addressing pop tunes has settled into something like a continuing art project, a thing unto itself. Meanwhile their discernment and rapport have only deepened. “Never Stop” (E1), released this week, is their most cohesive album, and it’s possible that they’ve never sounded better than they did at the Bowery Ballroom on Wednesday night.

“Never Stop” is the band’s first release of strictly original music. Until the encore — which included the jazz standard “Have You Met Miss Jones?” and Aphex Twin’s “Flim” — this show nearly followed the same restriction. Its opener was Mr. Iverson’s “2 P.M.,” a willfully open-ended piece dedicated to the drummer Paul Motian, one of a handful of living totems for the band. “Law Years,” by another of those totems, Ornette Coleman, unfolded as a secular hymn.

The declarative mood is standard for the Bad Plus, and this show underscored how much of a specialty it has become. A few older songs from the band’s repertory — notably “And Here We Test Our Powers of Observation” and “Knows the Difference,” both by Mr. Anderson — hewed to its proprietary formula: part sweeping momentum, part stately reflection, full to bursting with energy. “Anthem for the Earnest” by Mr. King tilted more toward a rock crescendo, but Mr. Iverson kept spiking the punch with icy dissonance.

Among Mr. Anderson’s newer songs, “Beryl Loves to Dance” took this headlong approach, while “You Are” was trickier, studded with cues. Mr. King’s “My Friend Metatron” suggested abstraction precision; “The Radio Tower Has a Beating Heart” showcased his more ceremonial side. “Bill Hickman at Home,” by Mr. Iverson, assumed a stoic Western lope, but blearily.

And then there was “People Like You,” by Mr. Anderson: a ballad with a rock backbeat and a semiclassical chord progression. It built slowly, shedding its austerity, until the result was ravishing, earning one of the most impassioned cheers of the night. About those cheers: they were intense and apparently coming from a well-informed place. No clamoring for Nirvana, in other words. What impressed this crowd most — no less, it seemed, during an imposingly strong opening set by Sam Newsome, playing unaccompanied soprano saxophone — was the totality of the commitment onstage.

By Nate Chiden
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