The Bad Plus

Neil McKim enjoys a Bristol concert by jazz misfits The Bad Plus

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The Bad PlusThis was one of the most good-humoured concerts I have seen for a long time… and for the right reasons. The audience was in stitches after a five-minute meandering introduction to a song, apparently inspired by a 1960s stuntman who kept turtles… and who hung out with Steve McQueen… and who liked baloney sandwiches. I was pleasantly surprised at this mirth as I was watching The Bad Plus, an American jazz band that is best-known for its relentlessly aggressive musical approach.

Over the last decade The Bad Plus (pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson, and drummer Dave King) has maintained a reputation for tearing up the rulebook when it comes to jazz trio performance. They are often portrayed as throwing aside older forms of jazz and instead recreating a contemporary format that is heavily influenced by other genres, as demonstrated by infamous cover versions, ranging from heavy metal’s Black Sabbath to Abba or to dance music’s Aphex Twin. Their tracks, whether cover versions or their own, have a beguiling ability to lull a listener into a calm state and then to rip up the floorboards in a ferocious audio assault.

As I sat watching the trio in Bristol last weekend I couldn’t really see what all the critical ‘fuss’ has been about. The band, although now older than when they first burst on to the worldwide scene in the early 2000s, has survived some very varied reviews in the UK over the years.

In recent albums the band members have concentrated more on their own compositions rather than cover versions. And their programme at Colston Hall reflected this, with a selection of their own compositions from across their career. It was the band’s last album Made Possible (2012), that contained some of their most striking work. The concert began with Anderson’s ‘Pound For Pound’, a slow burner that packs an impressive punch once drummer Dave King’s frantic percussion kicks in. Likewise, a highlight of the second half was ‘Seven Minute Mind’ with Iverson’s minimalist piano line. That said, there were also some fine performances of earlier material such as ‘And Here We Test Our Powers of Observation’, in which King demonstrated rippling drum 'n' bass style rhythms and ‘1972 Bronze Medalist’ with its thumping slamming groove, or the restless latin beat tinges of ‘Thrift Store Jewelry’.

Given the raft of jazz trios that are now around, who appear to be following in the wake of The Bad Plus and their ilk, it’s refreshing to see this band still playing at a creative edge. With pianist Iverson dressed in a suit, you’d almost be forgiven for thinking the once ‘enfant terrible’ of the jazz scene might have come of age. But a look across the stage to the white woolly jazz hat of Dave King showed that there’s still plenty of fun to be had.

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