“The New Familar”: The Bad Plus in Portland, Maine
Review by W. Frank Laurino
“I just want you to know,” says bassist Reid Anderson, “that we…all of us…we’re just saying that, you know…winning a bronze medal in the Olympics…there’s no shame in that, OK? It’s…perfectly respectable…a bronze medal.”
That’s about the extent of verbal explanation an enthusiastic audience would get November 13 at The Bad Plus’s performance at One Longfellow Square in Portland. (This, for “1972 Bronze Medalist” from the band’s eponymous first album, a/k/a Motel.) The trio’s music is in many ways tough to categorize. Yes, it’s jazz. But just what the band is really all about has confounded more than a few listeners over the years.
Since the band’s formal inception in 2000 (they actually started playing together 11 years earlier), The Bad Plus has built a reputation on ingenious – if not outright bizarre – reinterpretations of popular songs. Pink Floyd, Blondie, Queen, Nirvana, David Bowie, Prince, Yes, Neil Young, Black Sabbath – the list goes on. Fans love it. Still, the concept has landed jabs from critics who sum up the band as a trio of brilliant soloists who can’t write a memorable original tune.
The assessment is not only a bit harsh, but misses the point altogether. It can be argued that the history of jazz is nothing but one big musical reinterpretation. African polyrhythms, delta blues, brass bands, American popular song…gospel, latin, rock, R&B, funk, hip-hop, electronica…all that and more, put it in a blender, push “puree”…there you have it! Enjoy responsibly.
Some of the more recognizable TBP “covers” – “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” by Tears For Fears, or selections from this evening’s performance, including Kraftwerk’s “The Robots” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” – not only resonate with listeners, but are in many ways creatively equal to the originals. “Time After Time,” for example, has been covered on dozens of albums. Other than Miles Davis’s version (from You’re Under Arrest), only The Bad Plus’s reimagination artistically rises to the occasion.
Creative interpretation, not composition, is the cornerstone of jazz. And make no mistake, the trio – Anderson, pianist Ethan Iverson and drummer Dave King – would be loathe to label themselves a “cover band.”
As the Portland performance proved, Anderson, Iverson and King are each supremely skilled and inventive musicians. Anderson jumps between two tightropes throughout the evening, from anchoring the more sonically atmospheric contributions of his bandmates to driving the music from the bottom-up with furious string-wrangling. To one side of the stage, Iverson’s serene composure is freakishly deceptive: in an instant, tranquil Ellingtonian block chords erupt, full-fury, like Rachmaninoff on a film-noir acid trip. To the other side, the wildly adventurous Dave King beats, slaps, pokes, scrapes, massages and otherwise coaxes a ridiculous assortment of sounds from a simple drum kit…sometimes at a whisper, other times with the subtlety of a Game of Thrones battle scene.
This ain’t no cover band.
The Bad Plus offer what few other bands, jazz or otherwise, can – the New Familiar: music that on the one hand seems alien, but at the same time oddly recognizable. The New Familiar is perfectly suited to a polarized public inclined to retreating into “what we know” – our likes and dislikes, beliefs and opinions, what constitutes fact and non-fact. In this mindset, it’s increasingly difficult to consider something new, let alone experience it.
New Familiar from The Bad Plus taunts the brain. What is that? Sounds like…nope, can’t place it. Recognition eventually kicks in: Abba’s “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” or the encore from the Portland show, Johnny Cash’s iconic “I Walk The Line” (from their last release, It’s Hard). You think as you listen: “I Walk The Line,” Johnny Cash…OK, I’m with you. All the while, you’re opening yourself up to remarkably original new sounds.
There may be few jazz artists with so ambitious a mission, or for today’s audiences, one so critical. Pianist Iverson is retiring from the trio at the end of the current tour and will be replaced by longtime group friend Orrin Evans. The band confirms Evans will add his own unique contributions to the mix, and a new album is already in the works. Let’s hope the regular expeditions into the New Familiar continue.