The cynic in me really wanted to hate the Bad Plus. And, no, not because the New York– based piano-jazz trio is relatively successful. (After all, 40,000 to 50,000 in sales is really nothing in music-biz terms.) Without hearing a note, I was ready to dislike these guys simply because they seemed so schticky, so lacking faith in the strength of their own material—or perhaps just too willing to let the Columbia suits take the reins. How else to explain sophomore breakout These Are the Vistas’ well-publicized renditions of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” and Aphex Twin’s “Flim”? Or the presence of pop producer Tchad Blake, who’s ridden the faders for the MOR likes of Pearl Jam, Paul McCartney, and Elvis Costello?
A brief visit to a Tower listening station, however, set me straight. The reality is that for all its chart-topper covers and pound-and-whap intensity, Vistas is honest-to-goodness mainstream jazz—albeit mainstream jazz that’s very much informed by pop music. Whereas most similar outfits choose to ignore rock—perhaps even hoping in vain that it will go away—pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson, and drummer David King have truly internalized it. Better yet, they don’t pretend otherwise.
Nowhere is that more apparent than on “1979 Semi-Finalist,” the Steely Dan–esque opening cut on the Bad Plus’ third and latest full-length, Give, which features Pixies and Black Sabbath covers as well as another production job by Blake. It’s not just that the song centers on a rock-stiff, two-chord down-stroke riff. What’s more interesting is that the band engages in riffcentricity at all. Structurally, “1979” ain’t any old play-the-head-and-then-solo jazz: Though Iverson and Anderson both whip out some scales, neither ever hogs the spotlight or distracts from the central pulse of the song. Instead, they just weave in between incidental spaces of the rhythm.
That kind of groupthink is evident throughout Give—particularly on Anderson’s “And Here We Test Our Powers of Observation,” which would make a killer indie-rock instrumental transcribed for electric bass and guitar. Still, the album isn’t lacking in virtuosic displays. Iverson, especially, is a confident and versatile improviser, sometimes chopping at dry, right-angled bop phrases à la Bud Powell (“Cheney Piñata”), sometimes coaxing out romantic, lingering Bill Evans–like lines (“Frog and Toad”), and sometimes just freakin’ the fug out (“Do Your Sums–Die Like a Dog–Play for Home”). Anderson, by contrast, comes across as one of the most muscular bassists this side of William Parker, usually sounding as if he’s about to bust a string—or four. And though King is thoroughly comfortable with meat-and-potatoes rock beats, the drummer can swing as well as he slams.
The band members scoff at the suggestion that the Bad Plus might be of the liminal likes of Charlie Parker or Ornette Coleman, and I have to agree: Vistas and Give are evolutionary, not revolutionary. Downtowners such as Bill Frisell’s Power Tools, Tim Berne’s Miniature, and Chris Speed’s Pachora all married jazz skills with rock volume and structure well ahead of Iverson & Co. And the old-school fusionists—Miles, Lifetime, Mahavishnu Orchestra—amplified and psychedelicized jazz before that. Even the rock-covers thing was done decades ago. (In case you were wondering: The version of “Velouria” here is as fluttering and light as the trio’s take on “Iron Man” is shuddering and dark. And both surprise often enough to transcend novelty status.)
What makes the Bad Plus important is that it treats rock as an essential spirit in the cocktail: This isn’t a fusion—a one-half-jazz-plus-one-half-rock equation—but an assertion that rock is yet another influence that jazz will have to fold into itself to keep moving forward. What makes the group popular is that it doesn’t make that assertion any louder than it has to, keeping its music straight-ahead enough to appeal to all but the most dogmatic of jazz fans. (OK, maybe a bit louder: No one in any nonmetal genre covers Sabbath without both cranking it up and drawing attention to himself.)
So, yeah, we should all give the Bad Plus credit for avoiding the diminishing returns of formalism. And for selling out the Village Vanguard in the process. In the end, anything else is probably just jealousy.
The self-proclaimed “drunken metalheads” in German quartet Bohren & der Club of Gore might sound a bit like the Bad Plus, but they’ve taken an almost opposite approach: These are not jazz musicians influenced by rock, but extreme-music vets who swapped their metal equipment for electric piano, Mellotron, saxophone, upright bass, and brushed drums. In the transition, Bohren didn’t see fit to abandon its obsession with grim atmospheres—hence the band’s own “horror-jazz” tag. But what’s most telling is that the quartet thinks its “jazz” is in need of a modifier.
And it is: The Bohren boys not only are still in love with metal, but also prefer the studio to the stage. If the latter doesn’t reveal the band’s distance from jazz tradition, then just listen to tenor saxophonist Christoph Clöser’s playing on “Midnight Black Earth,” the opening cut on the quartet’s fourth full-length and first stateside release, Black Earth. Granted, he’s got a breathy, Lester Young–like tone, but when he comes in halfway through the eight-minute track, it’s not to improvise but to play what sounds like a precomposed melody. In interviews, keyboardist Morten Gass has talked about how the band fights for every…single…note when recording, and you can definitely hear it in Clöser’s languid blowing.
Compared with his rhythm section, though, Clöser plays at least twice as much in half the time. Bassist Robin Rodenberg and drummer Thorsten Benning are laconic and Codeine-slow: Regardless of whether their combined efforts rumble like thunder in the distance (“Crimson Ways,” “Maximum Black”) or tick-tock tightly like a metronome (“Vigilante Crusade,” “Skeletal Remains”), these two always leave huge chasms between beats. Gass is loquacious by comparison, picking elegant melodies from thick Fender Rhodes chords, but he’s not very jazz: As a mood-evoker, the keyboardist is more John Paul Jones than Keith Jarrett, more “No Quarter” than “Funky Tonk.”
And none of these guys ever take a traditional solo. Clöser comes close on “Destroying Angels,” the cocktail-bop exception that proves the rule. But he’s used largely for dynamic effect, coming in when Black Earth’s minimalist, noirish grooves threaten to become redundant. It makes you wonder: Can a group make a jazz record that never focuses on chops and includes little (if any) improvisation? Or, more to the point: What the hell is jazz anyway?
Gass would respond that Bohren has made a “doom” record—that is, not a jazz record in the celebratory sense—and that jazz instrumentation was the most original way for the group to do so. And seeing as how there are no jazz records on Bohren’s American label—not to mention that Black Earth, with a cover illo of a skull and Gothic typography—this thing will no doubt end up in the Pop & Rock section. But I guarantee that if you play it for someone who doesn’t have time to obsess over genres or traditions or musical semantics, they’ll think it has something to do with America’s native art form.
Some specialists might think otherwise, of course, and some might even agree that the disc really does deserve its own category, whether “horror jazz” or “piano doom” or even “swing-metal.” Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter that Black Earth doesn’t really fit in anywhere. What matters is that Bohren not only knows the right question to ask, but also knows the right way to ask it. CP
The Bad Plus performs at 3 p.m. Sunday, April 4, at the Reston Community Center’s CenterStage, 2310 Colts Neck Road, Reston. For more information, call (703) 476-1111.