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Joe Lovano Quartet and the Bad Plus at Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, Pittsburgh

Sandwiched between performances by pianists Ivan Lins and Bob James, the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild’s current season presented an act that found the Grammy-winning institution pushing themselves beyond their neo-traditional jazz image. Having Joe Lovano open the Bad Plus’ show might have been a way to ensure that Guild diehards would show up, but Pittsburgh doesn’t often get players of this caliber outside of the Guild or the Pitt Jazz Seminar anyway, so we should be grateful. Besides, that’s quite a bill no matter where it happens.

Lovano’s quartet, with pianist James Weidman, bassist Esperanza Spalding and drummer Otis Brown, opened their set with a couple of pieces from last year’s Streams of Expression album. The tenor saxophonist displayed a skill at stretching himself during solos while maintaining an understated sonority. Some upper-register wails during “Streams” were pealed off without excessive volume. Speaking of volume, Spalding’s bass often got lost in the mix, giving the music a nuance that was felt but not always heard, except when she took a solo. It detracted from the overall set since her melodic and technical commands of her instrument were in full effect. This was apparent during the plucked and strummed intro of “Lonely Woman” which went through a number of evolutions before Lovano finally whipped out the mutant aulochrome. Basically a double-soprano sax, it possesses a nasal sound like an oboe with more opportunities for bent notes, which Lovano exploited during his blues encore.

The Bad Plus’ set was a noticeable blend of freewheeling joie de vivre and buttoned-down reservation. This was obvious in the contrast between pianist Ethan Iverson and drummer David King. The former dressed in a suit and tie, politely addressed the audience between songs and played rather conservatively, albeit with a good deal of creativity. At the opposite end of the stage, King sometimes resembled a marionette as he swayed over his drum kit, donning a wool hat covered in skulls. (For the record, bassist Reid Anderson could pass for a member of an indie-rock band, dressed in blues and a sweater.) Their looks might seem superfluous when trying to examine the band, but these contrasts help give the Bad Plus the style and approach that drives their music. Anytime Iverson might seem like a classical player trying to hold things down, King was there to whomp his floor tom with a set of bells, or Anderson would cradle his bass and riff on a D drone. The piano riff to “Big Eater” proved Iverson isn’t above rocking out or slamming the keys with his palms, which he did on “Song X.”

One admirable quality about the trio’s set was their disregard for the head-solos-head approach in favor of something that’s closer to themes-plus-embellishment. If nothing else, it made open-minded listeners examine the music further. That also meant when they encored with the Bee Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love,” the snail’s pace arrangement made them seem like they were going for a cheap laugh, a criticism that’s followed them for a while. If not, they just sounded like a sleepy lounge act. Earlier in the set, they also tried my patience during the prog section of “Physical Cities” when all three banged out the rigid, stop-start section in unison before King finally broke into a backbeat. Luckily, that was balanced out by their emotional reworking of David Bowie’s “Life On Mars?”-where the melody begins in Anderson’s able hands-and the bassist’s new “Meryl Loves to Dance.”

The Guild’s audience tonight was a contrast as well. After nearly every song, groups of two to four people left the auditorium, and only one song received applause between solos. But the younger male section of the audience consistently responded with cheers and whoops typically heard at non-jazz gigs.

Originally Published