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.”