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The Bad Plus: Saying It Proud, But Way Too Loud

When the soothsayers and tastemakers at Esquire magazine posited in their March 2003 issue that the Bad Plus’ These Are the Vistas just might be the one album that could single-handedly make jazz relevant again, they failed to include this caveat: relevant for white rock scribes and other assorted geeks who couldn’t swing from a rope.

This renegade piano trio has already been the object of gross hyperbole in JazzTimes (Stuart Nicholson raves in the April 2003 issue that These Are the Vistas “is one of the most important jazz albums to appear in more than a decade”). Other writers for Entertainment Weekly, the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Washington Post and Rolling Stone have been equally effusive in their praise of the self-proclaimed “power piano trio.”

I, however, come not to praise the Bad Plus but to bury them. Never before in the history of jazz (or even psuedo-jazz) has a band played so little so loud for so many and gotten so much-hype, that is. I confess, I don’t get what all the fuss is about. And as far as their eagerly waited follow-up on Columbia goes-frankly, I don’t Give a damn.

Wildly overrated, the Bad Plus is a one-joke movie whose premise runs thin all too quickly. As Elaine Benes pointed out in an episode of Seinfeld while watching a video rental of the insipid Weekend at Bernie’s: “OK, we get it. He’s dead! We get it!” Similarly, I must submit: “OK, we get it. It’s an acoustic piano trio where the drummer plays really loud! We get it!”

Other drummers have dabbled in this louder-is-better idea-for example, Matt Wilson’s “Schoolboy Thug” from 1998’s Going Once, Going Twice on Palmetto-but haven’t made a career out of it. I certainly have no problem with powerhouse drumming: witness Tony Williams with Lifetime, Billy Cobham with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Lenny White with Return to Forever, etc. But I do have a problem with Bad Plus drummer David King, whose perfunctory plodding makes Ginger Baker sound like Philly Joe Jones. And yet, his ham-fisted approach to the kit is precisely what gives the Bad Plus its wide appeal among nonjazzers. If pianist Ethan Iverson’s rhapsodic lines, off-kilter rhythms and harmonic deconstructions throw them for a loop, they can always grab onto King’s throbbing, moronic backbeat.

Iverson is undeniably talented. A good humored iconoclast who is equally immersed in jazz and 20th-century classical, he has turned out a string of fine recordings for the Fresh Sound New Talent label, where the Bad Plus had its debut as a group back in 2001. And his stint as musical director for the prestigious Mark Morris Dance Company marks him as a seasoned pro as well as an accomplished artist. But for all of his cascading lyricism, high level of intelligence and technical facility, he doesn’t seem terribly interested in swinging. That aside, a lot of what he plays on Give strikes me as alternately schmaltzy, corny or just plain lame. The resulting sound is the piano trio that Schroeder from the Peanuts gang would eventually front in his 20s after growing up in the East Village and running into two rebellious lads who introduce him to the music of Nirvana, Aphex Twin and the Foo Fighters.

In a nutshell, it’s loud but ultimately more beholden to Beethoven than bebop, more Rachmaninov than “Rockin’ in Rhythm.” It’s Stravinsky with a slamming backbeat-which might sound good in theory, but Iverson’s tendencies toward gooey sentimentality and rococo stylings are disconcerting, to say the least.

I will, however, give it up to Bad Plus bassist Reid Anderson, whose resounding, deep-toned bass lines and keen sense of placement give this band its backbone-and whose own albums as a leader for Fresh Sound New Talent, notably 1999’s Abolish Bad Architecture and 2000’s The Vastness of Space, have been fabulous and fresh-sounding, Ornette Coleman-inspired gems.

Yes, the Bad Plus is clever, creative, audacious and artsy. But so was the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, and they never played a week at the Vanguard. And so are dozens of other cutting-edge Downtown bands in New York-but they don’t get invited to play at the hallowed halls of jazz either. Simply put, there is nothing about the Bad Plus that should merit weeklong engagements at the Village Vanguard, other than the promise of corporate marketing muscle and a flood of advance hype behind the band.

Make no mistake, this is not a white/black thing. I can think of numerous “white bands” that should be playing at the Vanguard (including John Zorn’s Masada, Tim Berne’s Paraphrase, Tony Malaby’s quartet, Donny McCaslin’s quartet, Dave Binney’s group, Jim Black’s quartet, Ben Allison’s Peace Pipe, Michael Blake’s Elevated, Frank Kimbrough’s trio, Ben Monder’s trio, Ari Hoenig’s quartet, John Hollenbeck’s trio, David Tronzo’s trio, etc.) but they can’t fill the place for two sets over six consecutive nights like the Bad Plus can. In the end, it’s not about black or white-it’s about green.

Meanwhile, the Bad Plus’ music either registers with you or it doesn’t. It’s either hugely meaningful or hopelessly lame. It either grows on you or it wears out its welcome quickly, mostly depending on which decade you were born in. If you’ve only had a steady diet of Korn, Goo Goo Dolls and Smashing Pumpkins all your life, I suppose this stuff might be a revelation. If, on the other hand, your record collection already is brimming with many vintage Blue Notes, Riversides, Prestiges and Savoys, the Bad Plus probably won’t do anything for you.

Those born in the early ’80s and who developed their musical tastes in the late 1990s will no doubt be more likely to “get” the Bad Plus. (A cursory scan of the audience during one of the trio’s weeks at the Village Vanguard revealed a median age of, I’m guessing, about 23-probably none of whom had ever set foot in the Vanguard before). Whereas, those from Ira Gitler and Nat Hentoff’s generation (people forming their musical tastes at the height of the bebop era) will undoubtedly not get the music of the Bad Plus.

And then there are those from the fusion generation-like myself, born in the ’50s and formulating their musical aesthetic in the late ’60s and early ’70s. These people could go either way on the Bad Plus. After all, innovative, renegade outfits like the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever, Weather Report and the Eleventh House all played quite loud while opening our rock-trained ears to a world of jazz harmonies and improvisation. But then, all those bands also led some of us to Miles and Trane, Bird and Diz and all the great jazz piano trios over time from Wynton Kelly and Ahmad Jamal to McCoy Tyner, Oscar Peterson, Phineas Newborn and on and on. So while some from my generation may indeed appreciate the Bad Plus, I don’t buy the trio’s act. Or at least I’m wildly ambivalent about these bad boys.

Their song titles alone reveal a wry streak that I do appreciate-“Here We Test Our Powers of Observation” and the pointed “Cheney Pinata.” And they cover both Ornette Coleman’s “Street Woman” and Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” without irony, which I like. It’s their original material that I find a bit iffy. The opener to Give, King’s “1979 Semi-Finalist,” carries a heavy undercurrent that is about as subtle as King Crimson’s “In the Court of the Crimson King.” King has his bass drum tuned wide open here, a neat trick he may have copped from watching Joey Baron at Tonic in New York or somewhere back in his native Minnesota, while pianist Iverson plays it strictly courtly. And though there’s plenty for Generation X (or Y and Z, for that matter) to grab onto here in King’s huge-as-a-house backbeat, there’s really nothing for the Ira Gitler set to sink its collective dentures into, save for Anderson’s rich, anchored yet interactive bass lines. Ultimately, it’s an exercise in artsy pretentiousness, a la the aforementioned Penguin Cafe Orchestra.

There’s a Keith Jarrett-ish quality to Iverson’s vaguely Latin “Cheney Pinata,” one of the few highlights of Give. And on Ornette’s “Street Woman,” Iverson reveals a freewheeling right hand with a strong contrapuntal left. While drummer King plays it much looser here, his boisterous bashing around the kit is anchored by Anderson’s humongous Hadenesque bass lines. King’s aggressive drum ‘n’ bass undercurrent on Anderson’s “Here We Test Our Powers of Observation” is juxtaposed against Iverson’s frilly filigrees, which raise the haunting specter of Richard Clayderman. Anderson’s brilliant, interactive bass work on King’s “Frog and Toad” is almost enough to overcome Iverson’s dainty playing here, which is far too precious, fastidious and borderline George Winston.

Their take on the Pixies’ “Velouria” is perhaps meaningful only to those who get the reference (I don’t). Again, Iverson’s playing on the delicate intro is marked by schmaltzy Claydermanesque forays that would be more appropriate in Carnegie’s Zankel Hall than the Village Vanguard. And when the band kicks into high gear, ultimately building to a grandiose crescendo, King’s insistence on stating the one so blatantly (the antithesis of hip) will annoy all but remedial listeners.

“Layin’ a Strip for the Higher-Self State Line” is a pretentious title for some ill-advised attempt at a country boogie-woogie novelty number with King laying down a clumsy imitation of a second-line groove. But lo and behold! The drummer does show that he can legitimately swing on the brief bridge section, though it’s not enough to save this cornball offering.

The suitelike “Do Your Sums-Die Like a Dog-Play for Home” travels through three distinct moods. Along the way, the bad boys demonstrate how clever they are at executing unison lines, though Iverson’s tinkling in the “sensitive” rubato section of this ostentatious track is particularly annoying. Anderson’s “Dirty Blonde,” an overwrought vehicle in search of Michael Bolton, sounds like Liberace playing at a CYO dance.

Anderson’s “Neptune (The Planet)” is easily the most intriguing number on Give. Far more calm and introspective than the rest of the album, it features the ham-fisted King in his most relaxed and bearable role. There’s actually a sense of breath and dynamics here that is lacking elsewhere. And the album’s closer, an interpretation of “Iron Man,” is another mischievously grandiose display with Iverson layering some glistening right-hand glissandos on top of the headbanger’s anthem once sung by none other than Ozzy Osbourne. Cute the first time around, but the joke wears thin fast-like this whole record.

But let’s face it, the Bad Plus didn’t make Give for me or for Ira Gitler or Nat Hentoff or anyone who has spent too much time with stacks of Blue Note, Prestige, Riverside and Savoy recordings. They made it for the 20-somethings who wouldn’t know Mel Lewis from Mel Blanc or Max Roach from Max Bialystock.

This album works if you truly believe that Kurt Cobain is as valid a musical influence as Miles Davis or John Coltrane. Or if you like your drums really loud. The rest of us remain only slightly amused by all this bashing and rococo noodling.

Originally Published