The Bad Plus: Great White Hypes?
When there comes meteoric critical acclaim and accolades there comes legions of haters. Last year, the Bad Plus took the music world by storm and surprise with their Columbia debut, These Are the Vistas, a masterstroke of head-banging, ballsy improvisational mayhem and grungy groove in which inventive reconstructions of alternative rock (Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit"), new wave (Blondie's "Heart of Glass") and electronica (Aphex Twin's "Flim") tunes mingled with blistering, melodically cogent originals such as the misty "Everywhere You Turn" and the whimsical, high-school-prom stomp "1972 Bronze Medalist."
Compared to most trio piano dates, These Are the Vistas sounds unapologetically loud, thanks to rock producer Tchad Blake's amped-up sonic sheen and David King's muscular drumming. Pianist Ethan Iverson, while he's a gifted melodist and dynamic improviser, also displayed much brawn, sometimes hammering out thick, dissonant chords and knuckle-bleeding trills against Reid Anderson's sinewy, driving bass lines. The album struck a chord with rock, pop and jazz fans and critics, becoming one of the most talked-about discs in 2003-a rare, commendable feat, considering the sagging sales of jazz CDs.
Unfortunately, the release of These Are the Vistas came out during the height of the racially charged controversy surrounding African-American socio-political pundit Stanley Crouch's dismissal from JazzTimes. According to the often acerbic writer, he was "let go" after his provocative April 2003 column, "Putting the White Man in Charge," which argued that many white journalists unjustly triumph white jazz artists at the expense of equally or greater talented black jazz artists. Of course, that was not in fact Crouch's last column for the magazine (he did one more, on pianist Eric Reed), and JazzTimes' repeatedly stated Crouch was let go because he was chronically late and sloppy with copy, his column was growing tedious and he was primarily interested in celebrating his buddies. Still, Crouch, like the Bad Plus, gained much attention inside and outside the jazz community, and both raised once again that sensitive yet ever-important topic about race relations in the arts and media.
Crouch was largely and routinely dismissed by many in the jazz world as a mean-spirited, out of touch, opportunist crank, but the overwhelming critical acclaim of the Bad Plus-especially in glossy, highly influential, nonjazz magazines such as Esquire, Blender and Rolling Stone, which barely give a rat's ass about jazz-seemed to provide perfect evidence for his claims of mostly white journalists aggressively trumpeting the new "Great White Hope."
Many of those magazines' writers attributed saviorlike properties to the Bad Plus. In Esquire's March 2003 music column, Andy Langer asks, "Can one album single-handedly make jazz relevant again?" before showering These Are the Vistas with gushing praise while simultaneously asserting that the rest of current jazz ain't about shit.
Even The Fader-a relatively new, hip magazine that delves deep into black music beyond hip-hop and R&B-seemed to have bent over backwards praising the Bad Plus. In the May/June 2003 issue, Ismail Sadiq began his profile on the Bad Plus with the caustic statement, "Jazz sucks lately," before painting a glowing portrait of the trio while simultaneously swiping the equally dynamic, modern, and engaging new works of Roy Hargrove and Stefon Harris as "risible" and "soporific," respectively.
In all fairness though, the Bad Plus is a highly engaging, at times, emotionally poignant piano trio, capable of absorbing many disparate genres without pandering to the lowest-common denominator of populist taste. It's not like they're the Vanilla Ice or Michael Bolton of jazz. Yet you can't deny that their scruffy, East Village looks and explicit love for rocked-up sonic exploits and compositions strike a favorable chord with many white editors and writers at major mainstream publications-those same ones who like Nirvana, Aphex Twin and Black Sabbath as much as the Bad Plus do.
From the perspective of a black person, witnessing the Bad Plus being so lovingly embraced by jazz establishment and mainstream press, so early in their career, leaves a slightly bitter taste. Meanwhile, equally daring and inventive black artists such as Steve Coleman, Jason Moran, Greg Osby and bad plus Orrin Evans have had to toil for far more years to receive such praise. It stings the same way as when Elvis Presley was called "The King of Rock 'n' Roll" and Benny Goodman was dubbed "The King of Swing." And with the similar colossal attention given to the likes of Diana Krall and Jane Monheit-while folks like Carla Cook and Carmen Lundy struggle to get significant coverage-many black people fear, once again, of becoming footnotes in the history of an art form that was originally born out of the African-American experience.
But you can't say that the Bad Plus are fostering racial division or resent them for their tremendous success, either. They're just trying to get theirs, like all artists. I had the privilege of meeting the Bad Plus last summer, at Fort Adams State Park, during the New York JVC Jazz Festival. They were unassumingly pleasant, good-hearted people.
What was in evidence in their compelling live performance then and on their new CD, Give, is an enormous degree of artistic integrity, superb musicianship and an intriguing penchant for deconstructing odd pop tunes. Give follows These Are the Vistas' lead in its rambunctious program of skull-cracking sonic assault, off-kilter merriment and implausible emotional sweep. Again, Blake brings a vivacious, richly detailed sheen to the production table, while the band again delivers uncanny, infectious and daring reconstructions of pop songs-Black Sabbath ("Iron Man") and the Pixies ("Velouria")-and delightful originals such as Anderson's groove-laden "Here We Test Our Powers of Observation" and King's country-tinged "Layin' a Strip for the Higher-Self State Line."
Ultimately, all the hype and controversy surrounding the Bad Plus presents two dangerous bandwagons to avoid when assessing the group's music-the overwhelming shine from much of the mainstream press and the suspicious hatred from the band's naysayers.
Listen to Give with honest and open ears to really enjoy the Bad Plus' fascinatingly grungy and ingenious makeover of the classic piano trio. While the CD won't reveal the band as jazz saviors, it'll prove that they ain't jive-ass suckas, either.
Originally published in April 2004