Dancing in Ornette's Headspace

One of the central tenets in the mythology of jazz's avant-garde is inaccessibility--and the consequence that experimentation comes at the cost of acceptance. There's a grain of truth to that generalization, which has served variously as a point of pride, a source of frustration or justification for dismissal. So it was with more than a passing interest that I noted the behavior of one sold-out house at the Village Vanguard a couple of years ago. The Bad Plus had just rampaged through "Street Woman," from Ornette Coleman's 1971 album Science Fiction (Columbia). At the song's last thunderous downbeat, the crowd had sprung, wildly cheering, to its feet. Blame demographics if you must, but it was the only time I've seen a standing ovation in the middle of a Vanguard set. The fact that it was occasioned by a Coleman composition, and not one of several rock covers, seemed significant, although it was hard to say exactly why or how.

I already knew enough to link the Bad Plus--two-thirds of it, anyway--to the music of Ornette. In June of 2003, Coleman played a dazzling JVC Jazz Festival concert at Carnegie Hall, premiering a group that featured his alto saxophone, trumpet and violin alongside two new bassists (Tony Falanga and Greg Cohen) and his longtime drummer (son Denardo Coleman). After the encore, as the audience spilled out onto 57th Street, I ran into Bad Plus bassist Reid Anderson and pianist Ethan Iverson, who both seemed astonished and somehow sobered. "I feel like someone in the early '60s must have felt," Iverson said. "The music he was making then, I totally understand; I grew up on that stuff. But what he's doing now is beyond me. I'd need to live with it to figure it out."

Within the year, the Bad Plus had played that Vanguard engagement and recorded "Street Woman" for a sophomore album on Columbia, officially outing itself as a group collectively in Coleman's thrall. In evaluating Give, the press and the public mostly paid more attention to a pair of covers: "Velouria" by the Pixies and "Iron Man" by Black Sabbath. But I have it on good authority that when Yves Beauvais, then serving as a Columbia A&R exec, sent a copy of Give to Coleman, the saxophonist paid attention. Coleman reportedly phoned Beauvais, saying, "I think people are finally understanding how to play my music." My sources tell me this comment elicited some tears--real tears--back at Bad Plus HQ.

Coleman's encomium might as well have applied to some of the original pieces in the band's rotation too--especially, at that time, Iverson's "Boo Wah." The statement also makes sense in light of the band's general process of improvisation. The Bad Plus is emphatically a post-Ornette trio, unified by a particular brand of abstraction: Without getting hung up on harmolodic theory (at least, not publicly), Iverson, Anderson and drummer David King have pledged allegiance to an energetic avant-gardism that's grounded, at times obliquely, to melody and pulse. Being a piano trio, this puts them in dialogue with groups led by Keith Jarrett (a formative band influence), Geri Allen (an Ornette collaborator in the 1990s) and Paul Bley (the artist most consistently capable of translating Coleman's language into pianism). "At their sleekest and most focused, they're like Paul Bley on a skateboard," Francis Davis wrote of the Bad Plus last October in the Village Voice; this was probably the best image conjured by a jazz critic all year.

Where Davis and some other astute observers miss the mark, I think, is in ascribing to the Bad Plus an ironic aesthetic. Davis again: "This levity, which links the Plus to the late, lamented Microscopic Septet and gives them more in common with Fountains of Wayne and They Might Be Giants than with any of the bands they've covered, reveals itself in their presentation as well as in their music." Fair enough. But I'd argue that the group's wry deadpan has a corollary in bygone jazz protocol: Dizzy Gillespie ribbing his "worthy constituent" at Massey Hall or Sonny Rollins sneaking schlocky quotes into a solo. Turning to the avant-garde, I suspect the Plus has more in common with Sun Ra, in his spangled vestments, than Lester Bowie, in his white lab coat. (The latter let you in on the joke; the former left you guessing.) But still, no precursor fits more readily than Coleman, whose music is often mischievously funny--listen again to the "heh heh heh" figure at the outset of "Focus on Sanity"--but never less than sincere.

Last April, the Walker Art Center, in Anderson and King's hometown of Minneapolis, mounted "Dancing in Your Head," a three-day festival devoted to Coleman. The Bad Plus assumed a central role, contributing "Street Woman" and "Broken Shadows." King's Minnesotan trio Happy Apple appeared as well, playing "Free." And the two bands meshed to perform "Una Muy Bonita" and "What Reason Could I Give," under the banner of a group called, inevitably, the Bad Apple. Notably, "What Reason," originally heard on Science Fiction with singing by Asha Puthli, featured imploring vocals by Anderson; Coleman, interviewed a couple days later by Robin James for Down Beat, cited it as his favorite performance of the festival. "They all had their own imprint on the information," he said of Anderson and his colleagues, "and they were trying to express what I have been doing in music. They all sounded like individuals in the way they expressed it for themselves."

That much was true, again, at a concert featuring Coleman and the Bad Plus in November, at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark. Anderson opened the evening with a dramatic bass solo that seemed to channel Charlie Haden; it led into the pointedly chromatic "Let Our Garden Grow." Over the next seven songs--including "Street Woman" and an as-yet-unreleased Anderson head-scratcher, "Physical Cities"--the musicians paid homage, indirect but unmistakable, to Coleman's oeuvre. During intermission and throughout Coleman's often powerfully focused performance, they sat conspicuously in a box above stage right, in the same order as onstage; they looked like president, treasurer and secretary in the Ornette Coleman Fan Club--which they might be.

According to the Bad Plus blog Do the Math (thebadplus.typepad.com/ dothemath), Iverson stopped by Coleman's home a few days after the concert, getting a lesson in harmony and a bowl of cornflakes with sliced bananas. The Bad Plus issued no Coleman songs on its latest album, Suspicious Activity?--but "What Reason Could I Give" was in fact recorded during the session and may see future release.

Speaking of which, that JVC concert was recorded, and the resulting album, Live at Carnegie Hall, 2003, is rumored to be releasing this year. So Iverson should have his chance to relive the music--the parts of it, anyway, that weren't already dancing in his head.

Originally published in March 2006

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