The Bad Plus Live in Chicago

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Friday February 05, 2010

By Brad Walseth

Consider me a convert. Critical darlings The Bad Plus strode back into town for a concert appearance at the U. of Chicago’s lovely Mandel Hall, and as James (Walker) was busy celebrating the Super Bowl down in New Orleans, John and I were recruited to cover the event. I am embarrassed to admit that the band’s reputation for doing modern jazz reworkings of rock songs by groups like Nirvana, Yes, the Bee Gees, Rush and Pink Floyd and their rock star status with the young crowd made me wary, and I had frankly somehow kept them off of my radar. No more. These are serious and hard-working musicians who have found a way to combine their love of music of all genres into a truly compelling mix of modern classical, jazz and yes, rock – and they have won over at least one more fan.

Opening up with bassist Reid Anderson’s powerful new composition – “Birthday Gift,” the trio immediately impressed with the intricacies of their music, the level of musicianship and focused band interplay. All three members are composers and drummer David King’s rhythmic “My Friend Metatron” followed, with Anderson’s “And Here We Test Our Powers of Observation” (from 2004’s Give) and pianist Ethan Iverson’s bluesy “Bill Hickman at Home.” Anderson’s beautiful bass solo on the latter was a true highlight – and his bass playing throughout the evening was a marvel of controlled power and extremely tasty note choices. Iverson also displayed his inventive keyboard work which spoke of a study of modern classical piano technique as well as an understanding of other styles like gospel and blues. His approach to the piano— both rhythmically and harmonically – is essential to the Bad Plus sound.

Meanwhile, drummer King (who told me that Chicago legend Fred Anderson helped give him his start as a member of indie jazz band Happy Apples) is a whirling dervish behind the drum kit. His creative and kinetic drum technique is free flowing, yet as precise as a set of driving pistons. Whether beating a booming bass tom with his fists or shaking a toy drum, King is all action and all smiles. His joy of life and music is infectious and it is clear that as seriously as they approach their music, all of the members of the band truly enjoy playing together – and they could often be seen laughing and smiling in appreciation of their fellow players’ musical interjections.

A highly rewarding polyrhythmic/polytonal version of classical composer Gyorgi Ligeti’s “Fem (Metal)” was followed by Iverson’s “2PM” (with it’s waves of aggression and rock drums) and another great new tune from Anderson – the balladic “People Like You” – with glorious brush- (and finger-) work from King, shimmering piano and tasteful bass – building to a delicious crescendo (another hallmark of the group – their uncanny use of dynamics). King’s strutting “1972 Bronze Medalist” was a treat – complete with killer bass and drum solos, and the band also looked way back to their beginnings with Anderson’s “Love is the Answer” (from 2001’s Motel) – another satisfying choice. King’s “The Radio Tower Has a Beating Heart” merged frenetic free jazz improvisation with what sounded like “Old Man River” on the piano. Here especially, King’s drumming rocked, but was augmented by jazz fills and feel. The primarily young crowd responded with a well-deserved standing ovation and loud adulation and the group ended the stellar evening with an unannounced tune (I suspect may have been “Big Eater”?).

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Photo by John Broughton, Copyright 2010

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