To many in the jazz-aware public, the Bad Plus arrives as a bolt out of the blue-galvanic, improbable, discrete, unforeseen. These Are the Vistas doesn’t technically mark the trio’s recorded debut, but as a Columbia release, it surely opens the gates and raises the stakes. This is, after all, a group accustomed to life on the fringe. (“The Bad Plus at the Village Vanguard,” pianist Ethan Iverson marveled, during the group’s pivotal one-night stand there last June. “I can’t believe we’re here.”)
Survey these vistas, or scrutinize them, and you’ll find ample justification for both the club date and the record deal. Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson and drummer David King have blazed a new trail for the piano trio-or, more modestly and perhaps more accurately, they’ve diverged from the beaten path and ranged freely on common ground. Their findings cover a wide swath of styles, and vary greatly in tenor, timbre and tone. So we get a segue from “Big Eater,” the splashy odd-metered workout that opens the disc, to a countrified ditty called “Keep the Bugs Off Your Glass and the Bears Off Your Ass.” In a similar vein, the bone-dry blues dirge of “Guilty” tumbles into the brazenly guilt-free harmolodic catharsis of “Boo-Wah.” This all might seem like mere eclecticism if it weren’t for the vigor of each performance. The band may assume many shapes, but their basic sound and fury remain consistent from track to track.
But what do they actually sound like? It’s tough to say without dissecting the whole into its component parts. Iverson’s piano is an instrument of orchestral dimensions, equally prone to grandiloquent outbursts, cubist outlines and intimate music-box patter. Anderson is a deft but full-toned bassist, a master of supple undercurrent. And King wields razor-sharp rhythmic flexibility, wicked humor and a steamroller’s propulsive thrust on his kit. Collectively the musicians inhabit an impressively elastic dynamic, forged of quick reflexes and dramatic flair.
Producer-engineer Tchad Blake, who comes to us from the world of Los Lobos, Tom Waits and Pearl Jam, approaches These Are the Vistas with an ear for acoustic frictions. His firm but unobtrusive direction showcases the Bad Plus in a way that’s somehow both huge-sounding and stripped-down. Blake obviously understands the vibe of a group heretofore known, in Iverson’s words, as “the jazz band that covers Nirvana.” True to form, Vistas includes the group’s darkly roiling “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” along with its frenetic take on “Heart of Glass,” by Blondie. Irreverence or no, both are jazz interpretations in the time-honored tradition. “Flim,” on the other hand, forgoes improvisation; instead it’s a startling simulacrum of its source material (a bedtime story by Aphex Twin).
These performances seem to fulfill the group’s self-proclaimed agenda of “passionate irreverence.” But some of the high points on Vistas convey a burnished neoclassical romanticism, untarnished by irony. Anderson’s “Everywhere You Turn” overlays a skittering groove with stately chordal melancholy. And the album’s tour de force, “Silence Is the Question” (also by Anderson), works a small motif through successively more imploring conjugations, culminating in a riot of colors. If the Bad Plus has an effect on the greater landscape of jazz, it will be through such ecstatic vistas as these.