wed 19/06/2024

The Bad Plus, Village Underground | reviews, news & interviews

The Bad Plus, Village Underground

The Bad Plus, Village Underground

Musical magpies light up Village Underground with their stolen glitter

Ethan Iverson, Dave King, Reid Anderson – plus-sized improv

Is it a strength or weakness that The Bad Plus, who bounced the Village Underground into raptures last night, can create a distinctive ensemble sound with everything from Nirvana to Stravinsky? They proved again that they’re a compelling live act, balancing a propulsive groove and regular melodic sweetening with chameleonic shifts of genre and electric storms of improvisation.

Like most things with a hypnotic quality, however, there’s an element of repetition, and in the last couple of songs the joins in their witty musical patchwork were becoming more audible.  

Their distinctiveness comes from a forthright combination of rock rhythms and power, with bursts of seething, crackling improvisation and outbreaks of strutting melody: the knowledge that a strong melody is never far away is surely an important part of their popularity. They played repertoire from their two most recent jazz albums, 2012’s Made Possible and the recently released Inevitable Western. (No mention was made of their version of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring transcribed for jazz trio, also released this year to widely dropped jaws.)

They’ve never been afraid (as some in the forward movements of jazz are) of showcasing a melody. Having squeezed other people’s into their pieces in their early work (Neil Young, David Bowie and Black Sabbath have all had a Bad Plus treatment) they now tend to write their own. “Pound for Pound” opened last night’s gig (it would stop shows just as well as start them) as it did the album Made Possible, and it’s a monstrous peacock of a tune, with that stellar ability to sound much more familiar than it really is. There was more introspective technique on show, however, in numbers like “Self Serve”, “Wolf Out”, and “Mr Now”, all demonstrating the band’s technically superb ensemble playing in their grittier rhythms and less flirtatious melody.  

Bassist Reid Anderson does most of the talking, with a lethal deadpan delivery that, like their music, balances moods with extraordinary precision, swerving between goofiness (you had to be there to enjoy the joke about “Epistolary Echoes”) and rambling, observational narratives with vicious, Stewart Lee edges. His linking announcements became an important part of the live experience, culminating in a short song advertising their merchandise, performed in a quavering falsetto. Gregory Porter can rest easy.

For once, the term “postmodern” seems a useful way of describing The Bad Plus’ technique

Technically, they were very polished, as you’d expect in a band that has played together, on and off, for 25 years now. The changes of mood and style come thick and fast, but they all stay on board for the ride. Pianist Ethan Iverson has the greatest scope to show off his versatility, giving us everything from stride to minimalism via Rachmaninov and Elton John. Live, Anderson’s acoustic double bass has a manic, febrile intensity caused by the extreme amplification of an acoustic sound, and his playing is rhythmically driven in the same way. In practical terms his part might be more easily played on an electric bass, but that would lose the essential generic blend of acoustic sound and rock style. Much is written about Dave King’s rock drumming, but his style succeeds, just like the other two players’, as a blend, and he also stirs feathery baffles and polyrhythm into the mix when occasion demands.   

The Village Underground was the perfect venue, offering a spacious acoustic and atmosphere. This is music to move to, sporadically at least, and its self-awareness needs a crowd comfortable with a playfully promiscuous attitude to genre. Fortunately, Shoreditch beards dotted the sea of upturned faces like autumn heather on a grouse moor, and the group won’t find fans much more accepting of merging genres. They were well prepared by a short set from the duo Bitch n Monk, with flautist Mauricio Velasierra (on Andean flutes) mixing delicate folk tunes with aggressive rhythm, and beatboxing soprano and guitarist Heidi Heidelberg matching his combination with a blend of gossamer vocals (sometimes looped into a fugal accompaniment) and gutsy guitar rhythm.

Eventually, some of the swirling phrases begin to sound a little similar. There is a technique at work, and once it becomes familiar, the surprise inevitably wanes. Listening too closely is a little like standing too close to a pointillist painting. For once, the term “postmodern” seems a useful way of describing The Bad Plus’ technique of taking snatches from across a broad musical landscape and putting them together in an addictively witty, knowing and melodramatic way. They’re not the only group to draw the melody and energy of rock into jazz, of course, but they’re the wittiest and most straightforwardly enjoyable.

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