General 3-23-2004

Music Review: Bad Plus

Richard Paske attended the Bad Plus show and, despite admiring their superb technique, had qualms about the state of the music's soul.

The Bad Plus

Once again I’ve attended a concert not intending to write a review of musicians with local ties but feeling compelled to do so as I left the performance. Last July it was for the happy reunion of Phil Hey and Pat Moriarty (see the link below) in the tiny, nearly-empty, and now sadly closed Brilliant Corners on a deserted Wabasha Street in downtown St. Paul. (Happily, Brilliant Corners will reopen soon in Minneapolis). Tonight, March 22, 2004, it was for the recently world-famous Bad Plus at a nearly full Guthrie Theater. The contrasts and comparisons between the two performances speak volumes about the nature of improvisational music and about its uneasy place in the current musical marketplace.

Tonight, I was gratified to see three local-boys-made-good return to the house that has hosted John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett, John McGlaughlin, and so many other jazz luminaries over the years. It was obvious to all in attendance that the Bad Plus were honored to play the same stage as the greats. But that wasn’t enough to create an evening of musical satisfaction, at least for me. For all the heartfelt sentiment between hometown audience and their prodigal musicians, the music never reached the fever pitch that has thrust past the stage lights in the past.

The bottom line about the music: the Bad Plus’ performance was extremely skillful (often magnificently so), remarkably dynamic, but strangely unmoving. Why? They hit the rhythmic points of each arrangement with the precision of a team of Chinese acrobats. Their attention to dynamics allowed each instrument to be heard clearly within a variety of musical textures, from serenely quiet to boisterously loud. Their phrasing evoked a range of expression from quiet query to defiant self-assurance while passing through a myriad states in between. These guys can play! Why was I so unmoved?

The pianism of Ethan Iverson is beyond dispute. He possesses a formidable technique, to compare with the highest echelons of the classical musical world. But his blues never leave the rarified Apollian world for the messy, dirty underworld of Dionysus, where all the blues begin and end. And what is jazz without the blues, the real blues? In a word, lacking. In a phrase, lacking gut-wrenching, deep-down feeling in the spirit of the body, the body of the spirit.

Iverson’s touch is sure (too sure!), his phrasing immaculate (too clean!), his harmonic sense appropriately postmodern with its Lisztean arpeggios and Chopinesque melodies standing in for the Doric columns of postmodern architecture, coolly referring to a remembered European history within a current, global postmodern context. When inspired to do so Iverson can unleash a fury of fists and fingers that thunder and crash like a storm thrown down from Mount Olympus. But his storm does not move deep emotions, it merely impresses the senses and the intellect.

Like Iverson, drummer David King possesses a dazzling instrumental technique, one that most drummers would kill for. At one moment his stick technique can draw forth rhythmic delicacies as intricate as finely woven lace; the next moment hands and feet together create a bombast worthy of the most heathen of heavy-metal pounders. He’s a sight, with his head bobbing to all points of the compass, his shoulders hunched like a swarthy street-fighter at 2 AM, and the balls of his feet tensed and jabbing on his two pedals. But beyond all the fury and all the delicacy and all the bobbing and weaving there is something essential missing, something without which jazz don’t mean a thing – a deep, profound connection between King and the other musicians in the group. In a word, King’s performance tonight was solipsistic. For all his physical engagements, he is ultimately in a world of his own. And that ain’t what jazz is about.

Bassist Reid Anderson, while not as technically brilliant as the other Pluses, tries valiantly to hold the Bad’s center together, but sadly does not succeed. Despite his efforts the worlds of Iverson and King never merge, but only collide on a level analogous to Hesse’s Glass Bead Game – a level that might fascinate and impress the cognoscenti with its deft intricacy, but does not move most of us where we live. When Anderson lands vehemently on beat one as all strong bass players do, King and Iverson don’t land with him – they’re not in the groove he lays down so firmly. When he sits in the pocket of two and four they merely orbit around his time – they don’t find the rhythmic center together, the center of feeling that jazz needs to propel its message directly to the listener’s heart, body, and solar plexus.

As evidenced by their multiple standing ovations, it’s obvious that the Guthrie audience, and the global Bad Plus audience that is growing by leaps and bounds, will disagree with me about the success of the music tonight. They will say that the music was splendid, adventurous, emotionally charged, and daring. Most of them would probably believe that the Bad Plus’ approach to improvisation is new, that what they are doing is something revolutionary.

This audience, sadly, would be ignorant of the more than 50-year history of this kind of improvised music – of what was dubbed “The New Thing” in 1964. They would not know of Cecil Taylor, or Andrew Cyrille, or Milford Graves, or Alan Silva, or Dave Burrell, or Paul Bley, or Charlie Haden or so many others who were stretching the limits of jazz before the Bad Plus were born. When Anderson mentioned the source of one of their tunes tonight – Ornette Coleman’s album “Science Fiction” – two people out of a Guthrie three-quarters full clapped. While it is undeniable that the rapid global success of the Bad Plus indicates that there is a thirst for improvised music outside of the ordinary piano-bass-drums jazz standards format, it truly is sad that the level of emotional communication between the members of the Bad Plus, and the cathartic personal transformations that can result in both musicians and audience, fall so far short of the attainments of those who came before.

To make things right the Bad Plus needs to play some blues; they need to play some blues and they need to mean it.