With three prolific songwriters at the helm and improvisational skills honed throughout the decades, these rock stars of avant garde jazz have an inexhaustible reserve of music that could amaze the same crowd night after night for a lifetime.
This time around, their set largely featured new material in its final stages of refinement before recording a new studio album next week. They took the stage without introduction and after only a brief moment to tune, they set off with an upbeat new creation "Gold Prisms Inc.," composed by drummer David King. Featuring a notably modest solo from each member, the opening number was nevertheless lively and impressive.
The Bad Plus' set continued with another new piece before the musicians introduced themselves to the members of audience joining for the second set. This time, it was one of Ethan Iverson's compositions entitled "Mr. Now," and featured Iverson's piano in a lead role, full of cascading phrasing and time changes matched perfectly by King on the drums and held together by a stable bass line. This song proved to be a pivotal moment of the night, not for its musical brilliance, but for the discussion that followed.
Bassist Reid Anderson handles the microphone for the introductions and chatter during the shows, and this night, he was at his best. His improvisational story telling continually amuses the crowd and even catches his band mates off guard as he creates wryly delivered back stories for their songs, highlighted this set by the exploits of Iverson's quirky neighbor Mr. Nowizaki, and as the set progressed, his relationship with the Olympic weightlifter protagonist of their fourth song "1972 Bronze Medalist." While the stories were great, the highlight of Anderson's night on the microphone came when the entire band improvised a lounge style ballad about the bassist's desire to wear cardigan sweaters in 2014, simultaneously shaming King for wearing one that night.
While persistently thrilling the crowd with each song, the mid-set pairing of "I Hear You" and "Epistolary Echoes," arranged by Anderson and King respectively, stood out among the new material and seemed to be the focus of much of the after show discussion. In the first piece, Iverson and Anderson's parts often transitioned from synchronization to syncopation in what resembled premeditated mistakes. At other times, Iverson would surprise the listener, not by selecting a riff or phrase that is off the wall, but by playing exactly you'd anticipate from the piano.
When it comes to the Bad Plus, the unexpected becomes the expected, and this was very much the theme the second song of the pair. As with many of King's compositions, this piece featured drastically disparate segments. The trio embraced the catchy rhythms of pop, lead by Anderson on bass while Iverson and King clapped along from their seats. In contrast, they appreciated the chaos of the avant garde style during the other segments, furiously juggling time signatures that only the most thoroughly educated jazz addicts could follow, before suddenly returning to the even meter of the pop portions.
To close out the night, they returned to a fan favorite from a previous release, the title track from their 2010 release "Never Stop," an easily groovable tune that left the crowd in the highest of moods. After delivering material that was largely new to the audience, it was a superb selection to give their dedicated fans something familiar. The Bad Plus continue to serve innovative and original sets to the audiences at Jazz at the Bistro; clearly the band will carry on this fantastic January tradition for years to come.
Photos by Wil Wander.