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The Bad Plus: Suspicious Activity?

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Ah, the Bad Plus, subject of many a heated debate. Dozens of jazz fans want to know: Is the “controversy” over this New York-based piano trio still simmering? Let’s hope not. After all, nearly three years after the Bad Plus’ breakthrough and Columbia debut, These Are the Vistas, it should be clear to anyone paying attention that this band is neither as save-the-genre important as some boosters had hoped nor as hog-the-spotlight popular as some haters had feared. Attribute the latter anxiety to the group’s sales, which would barely earn a metal band a blurb in Rolling Stone, or perhaps to its major-label contract, something that was once not all that big of a deal. (Some claim that the Bad Plus buzz is less about talent than race, but try telling that to Dave Douglas-an excellent white trumpeter recently dropped from Bluebird/RCA.)

The good vibes, on the other hand, owe much to the band’s generous ensemble playing, affinity for unorthodox covers and drummer David King’s tendency toward fierce, rock-informed beats. Fake jazz? No more so than Mahavishnu Orchestra, Tony Williams Lifetime or Return to Forever. The Bad Plus’ latest full-length, Suspicious Activity?, like its two Columbia predecessors, is simply the sound of a band acknowledging its proper place in time. Granted, several cuts on Activity go overboard on the pop: Throw a John Mayer-type vocal on the pulse track “Anthem for the Earnest” or on the melancholic ballad “Lost of Love” and the tunes are more or less radio-ready. And at least one track, “O.G. (Original Gentleman),” is pretty much straightahead, exposed-brick bop (King swings!).

Still, much of the solid new album is about modern-day contrast. King and bassist Reid Anderson were obviously raised on rock and hip-hop (what 30-something musician wasn’t?) and they show it off with the muscular thwap and throb of their accompaniment. The rhythm section deserves props not only for its attempt to fold the last four decades of popular music into the piano-trio format but also because it provides an excellent foil for default leader Ethan Iverson, a musically gregarious pianist who often displays a rather light, romantic touch. The fruits of this pairing are most evident on the Jarrettesque opener, “Prehensile Dream,” where the rhythm section adds proper weight to a performance that might’ve otherwise floated away.

The balancing act, however, is a precarious one and sometimes gives way to unpleasant bombast-especially when Iverson leans a bit heavy on the ivories (“Let Our Garden Grow” and “Knows the Difference”). The title of the Bad Plus’ first official live release, Blunt Object: Live in Tokyo (only available through iTunes and, acknowledges as much; and the versions contained therein are likely to give naysayers plenty of ammo.

The percussive “And Here We Test Our Powers of Observation,” which originally appeared on last year’s Give, benefits from Blunt Object’s extra-aggressive approach. More often than not, though, the material just suffers from the battery: Queen’s “We Are the Champions” and Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” in particular, are manhandled past the point of listenability. And the piss-take “My Funny Valentine”-with its wink-wink, tuneless vocal-suggests that the Bad Plus is doing everyone a favor by steering clear of trad material.

Perhaps Iverson and Co. need not have slaughtered a sacred cow to remind us that it’s 2005, not 1955. But, hey, would they be where they are today if they never tried?