Thursday, July 02, 2009

The Bad Plus - L'Astral 7/1/2009

It seems that a review of the Bad Plus has to address the critical (mis)perception of the band, as well. Ever since they exploded onto the major jazz radar with their cover of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," they've been painted with the wide brush of being a strictly bombastic band. Throughout their set at L'Astral, they proved that power can come without volume.

The set opened with Reid Anderson's "Everywhere You Turn," almost "Nefertiti"-like in its economy. Dave King rarely strayed from his soft yet propulsive backbeat (until the tune's final build), and Ethan Iverson gave a direct reading of the tune's melody, allowing Reid to solo in the gaps with his amped-up tone.

Ethan's introduction to his own "Mint" featured his distinctive sense of counterpoint, where it sounds like it could go off the rails at any moment but won't because of Ethan's startling sense of control. I really appreciated the dry sound of the trio in the new L'Astral, as opposed to the immense reverb they were saddled with when they were Mike Stern's guests at Place des Arts.

King's "Thriftstore Jewelry" followed, featuring the twisted TBP take on the '60s "Latin" feel. Dave's drum solo seemed to be the percussive equivalent of Ethan's melodic language. By the way they unleash elements of the standard language of common-practice jazz, you can tell by inference that Ethan, Reid and Dave have done their homework, and are tweaking the paradigms with strong intent.

It was quite revelatory to hear two of the modern classical pieces - Ligeti's "Metal" (from the second book of piano etudes) and Babbitt's "Semi-Simple Variations" - live. They didn't sound drastically different from a Fieldwork tune, with the intervallic consistency and logic and the rhythmic twists-and-turns that Dave brought into relief with his drum patterns. The Babbitt served as a prelude to Reid's "Physical Cities," in all its tension-ratcheting, thundering glory. The immense hookup between the three, the massive groove that sometimes comes out, is an underrated element of the Bad Plus.

Wendy Lewis came out for the second half of the set. I really appreciated how the tunes were recast in ways that truly suited the songs - not subversive for the sake of being subversive. In the chorus of Nirvana's "Lithium," the trio starts to wobble like a warped record, pulling the rug from under Wendy. Ethan's harmonic language substitutes for the noise of Cobain's distorted, chorus-laden guitar. Wendy's straight voice, without vibrato, allowed every element to come across clearly. She has phenomenal intonation to keep everything in place over the reharmonized passages. Wilco's "Radio Cure" opened with a duet between Reid and Wendy, as Ethan peppered polytonal flurries over a relatively straight rock beat. The song gradually got dismantled harmonically, before it fell apart rhythmically. Reid showed off his backing vocal chops here, and on "Comfortably Numb."

This harmonic pulling-apart was a characteristic of all the other covers: the lugubrious swing of "Long Distance Runaround," the plaintive plea of "How Deep is Your Love" which started off as is and then gradually disintegrated in the second chorus. Ethan sped up Gilmour's chiming arpeggios in "Comfortably Numb," turning them into beautiful cascades of piano.

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