"YOU HAVEN'T HEARD of the Bad Plus?" This is a friend of mine, a New York jazz musician, a few months ago. "Huhyou will." Damn, was he right.
THE BAD PLUS Tractor Tavern, 206-789-3599, $12 8:30 p.m. Thurs., May 22
The press kit that crashed into my box a few weeks ago was denser with raves and superlatives than any in recent memory. The veteran jazz critic Terry Teachout, writing in The Washington Post, declared: "If you want to know where jazz is headed next, look here." The band appears to be enjoying more crossover media action than anyone since Norah JonesNewsweek, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Blender, even Jane for chrissake, all were singing the praises of the Bad Plus and its major-label debut, These Are the Vistas (Columbia). In other genres, there's a Next Huge Thing about every other week, it seems; but it's pretty rare for jazz musicians to get this kind of treatment.
Of course, being a critic, I'm supposed to take a stand, to weigh in. (Or else just accept that they're the hottest thing ever and go from there. "Yo, Mr. Plus, how does it feel to be the hottest thing ever?") But I'm so ambivalent about this band, I hardly know what to say. The first time I cued up their infamous rendition of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," the stench nearly killed me. This is what everyone was excited about? I've got no problem with Nirvana covers; there are beautiful jazz versions of "Heart-Shaped Box." But this was so melodramatic, so over-the-top, like a concert hall pianist taking the ashen anger and punk grit and turning it into a grandiose, bombastic sonata, white tails flying. I struggle with how much of the Bad Plus might be just bad taste. And yet, after spending a week with them on my boom box, I've grown more accustomed to their particular teen spirit. At this point, I could easily believe they wrote that song, it fits them so well.
The instrumentation of the Bad Pluspiano, bass, drumsplaces them within the most convention-bound of jazz formats. Yet they offer a peculiar mix of ferocity, abandon, and extreme control that manages to be only distantly related to the jazz idiom and unquestionably original, integrating the feeling of free jazz with a composed meticulousness, music-box delicacy, and garage-rock drive. (No surprise all three players hail from the Midwest, which seems to breed a kind of liberated, unbeholden jazz mentality.) The band's closest recent analogueboth in terms of style and marketing angleis Medeski, Martin, & Wood. But the Bad are more devoutly acoustic, generating excitement strictly from musicianship, not knobs or novel patches, and they're a lot less groove-oriented, always undermining the rhythmic feel with slurred stops, open solos, odd time signatures, and dropped beats. And their music sounds much more planned; not a loose, see-where-this-takes-us jam band by any means, the Bad's highly contoured rises and falls seem carefully drawn for maximum impact.
AT LEAST SOME of the mainstream attention they've won is attributable to their semikitsch coverswhich also include "Iron Man" (not on this CD) and Blondie's "Heart of Glass"and their willingness to bash and slam like a rock band (drummer David King stabbing ruthlessly at the back beats of "Guilty," for example). But it's the amazing classical chops of pianist Ethan Iverson, fused with a dexterous catchall bass-drum versatility, that makes the band so remarkable. Players like Dave Brubeck and Phineas Newborn have brought classical motifs into swing settings before, but on "Boo-Wah," the Bad Plus have created some fierce new amalgam of dark Stravinskian runs, Ornette blues, and Road Runner chase scenes that I've never heard before. It explodes boundaries while offering its own well-formed internal logic. Radically different as they are, the 10 cuts on Vistas, including originals from all three members, are all marked by this cohesive intelligence. This band's got plenty of "the vision thing."
Still, a lot of it rubs me the wrong way. It's great that the Bad Plus aren't afraid to put themselves out there with some extravagantly impassioned playing especially when so much contemporary music seems designed to avoid conveying anything whatever, aside from the vague assurance that you're listening to something cool. Yet the emotional intensity level is just cranked up too high for me on These Are the VistasI feel stuck between the covers of an adolescent's diary. The disc's tour de force, an eight-minute closer called "Silence Is the Question" that builds and builds and, yes, builds, just left me amazedand unmovedby the melodramatic excess. It's like Cecil Taylor meets Liberace or Prokofiev: Live at Red Rocks!
Then again, I might change my mind next listen. And their live show could reveal another side to them altogether. So while the Bad Plus may not entirely add up for me, I can say with some certainty that you should check them out for yourself.