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The Bad Plus: Made Possible

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The boys are back. Made Possible is the 10th album by the Bad Plus. They are still loud and inappropriate. They are still impulsive and obnoxious and irresistible as street urchins. And they have found some fresh ways to be all these things. The tunes are new, original and ambitious, and incorporate occasional synthesizers and electronic drums.

Entirely unforeseen is another piano-trio record released by TBP’s drummer, Dave King. I’ve Been Ringing You is a seductive, moody, poetic album with pianist Bill Carrothers and bassist Billy Peterson. Its repertoire comes from the American Songbook. Its atmosphere comes from Bill Evans.

So: a recording by a 12-year-old anti-piano trio, devoted to mayhem, and a recording by a classic piano trio playing together for the first time, devoted to grace. And they share a drummer. It begs investigation.

We know the slow, snaky percussion pattern that opens “Pound for Pound,” the first track of Made Possible. We know the belligerent backbeat of “Sing for a Silver Dollar.” We have heard rock drummers all our lives. But to encounter such drums in the context of an acoustic jazz piano trio disrupts our assumptions about the format. TBP has always insisted that they are a cooperative band, and it is true. There is no leader. The three voices, including pianist Ethan Iverson and bassist Reid Anderson, are equally important. Yet what gives TBP its sonic signature is King, who makes most rock drummers sound like wimps. His raunchy, crashing aggression serves a larger ensemble aesthetic that embraces contradiction.

“Pound for Pound” starts as a serene piano figure, but then Iverson begins to digress and the drums intensify insidiously and the lullaby explodes into hammering catharsis before it falls back again. The musical arc is simple; the emotional waveforms are not. “For My Eyes Only” opens with nasty drum bashing and chords grabbed hard and clanging tremolos, but flows into a gentle, pristine melody of single piano notes, then spikes to a shattering crescendo. “In Stitches” is a lovely meandering ballad until Iverson gets swept away in the whirlpool whipped by King and Anderson.

TBP can segue from bombast to quietude, from jagged dissonance to sweet singable refrains, from harmonic deconstruction to straight swing, and then blow it all up for fun within a five-minute tune. Somehow it sounds not schizophrenic but recognizably human.

I’ve Been Ringing You could not feel more different. It was recorded in an unnamed “little church in Minnesota,” and it is cloistral. It opens with the eerie treble keening of King’s waterphone and a few lost piano chords that, with dramatic patience, reveal themselves as Gordon Jenkins’ “Goodbye.” It is the slowest, deepest, most bereft, most existential “Goodbye” on record. It is utterly gorgeous.

There are other performances almost as rapt: Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman,” arrayed by Carrothers in bare fragments; “If I Should Lose You,” withheld then released as tides of emotional knowledge; “This Nearly Was Mine,” marked out with great care, in formal blocks, a secular hymn. Carrothers has a precise, sensuous touch and an instinct for suggestive, minimalist form. Peterson, said to be an “underground legend” on the Minneapolis scene, is a revelation, a shifting dark light within the music. And could this drummer, with his flickering brushes on cymbals, his subtle accentual gestures, really be King?

How these albums are polar opposites is interesting. More interesting is what they have in common. On Made Possible, the epiphanies occur when Iverson comes upon lyricism within the thundering maelstrom of King and Anderson. There is nothing to prepare you for such moments. New synapses fire in your brain.

And I’ve Been Ringing You, an album that starts with lyricism, turns out to be lyricism infused with fervent inner energy. “So in Love” is angular, a theatrical ceremony, a hard ballad. King’s cracks on his snare resound throughout the church. “This Nearly Was Mine,” a song about reconciliation to loss, is rendered ambiguous and unsettled by King’s nervous stirring.

To hear the elegance within the violence of Made Possible, and the edginess within the radiance of I’ve Been Ringing You, is to rediscover why critic Whitney Balliett called jazz “the sound of surprise.”

Originally Published