I made my way inside for the first concert of the Invitation series: guitarist Mike Stern temporarily joining the ranks of the Yellowjackets and The Bad Plus. I was skeptical about this concert, as collisions between disparate bands look intriguing on paper and result in disaster. TBP opened with “Mint,” from Prog, a demented, swinging line courtesy of pianist Ethan Iverson. Having never seen TBP live, I was struck by the facility of each player. David King gets a bad rap for being a loud drummer, and while he can unleash the holy power of John Bonham, he’s also got great touch and an ear for the whole kit – rims, shells and all. Iverson has incredible technical prowess and independence of hands, with boundless harmonic knowledge and imagination. Bassist Reid Anderson is the glue of the band, and an unabashed melodicist. It became clear during the set why Ornette Coleman has shown his appreciation for the band, and how TBP is a fairly direct descendant of the “harmolodic” lineage, from Ornette through the Keith Jarrett American Quartet of the ‘70s.
Mike Stern came out and immediately the set became awkward for me. He has no pick attack in his tone; it’s all note, which wouldn’t be so bad if his sound wasn’t drowning in chorus and delay, inviting comparisons to Andy Summers. Starting with his tune “Play,” Stern unleashed a solo full of pentatonics, string bending and a few closing choruses with trebly distortion, an archetype for many of his solos to come. He trampled over the solos of each member of TBP, though it was fascinating to hear the band play on more standard forms – Iverson’s version of “crazy experimental freedom” “funnelled” into the context of a minor blues, for example. King has a tremendous swing feel, putting him in the line of that generation of drummers around the NYC club, Smalls, during the mid-to-late ’90s (Ari Hoenig, Jeff Ballard, etc.) Jazz Fest has a history of doing a disservice to pianists, and this night was no exception. The piano sounded boxy in the house, almost as if it were a bad digital keyboard. Ethan's body language seemed especially disconcerting, often standing up while playing, or sitting on the bench, laying out during the first choruses of Stern's solos. It boiled down to the fact that Stern’s vocabulary is entirely different from TBP – made especially evident when he tackled one of their tunes – and a consensus wasn’t reached.(An abridged version of this review appears at Panpot. Tickets provided by FIJM.)