Friday, January 19, 2018

The Bad Plus: Can't stop, 'Never Stop'

Here, via Rolling Stone, is my take on the new Bad Plus album, Never Stop II. The short version: I think it's goddamn great, and I've been playing it on repeat for the past week.

It's been a little weird watching the Bad Plus go public about their recent personnel shakeup. (In addition to these authoritative accounts from Nate Chinen and Giovanni Russonello, don't miss Pamela Espeland's equally vital feature for the Star Tribune, as well as the full transcripts of her conversations with the band members and some of their key Twin Cities allies, which live at her bebopified blog.) Weird because a) there simply aren't that many jazz bands out there who are stable and longstanding enough for their membership changes to qualify as noteworthy news and because b) it's not often that you read about behind-the-scenes interpersonal discord — or even interpersonal dynamics, period — in jazz. (One example that stands out, ironically, is departed TBP pianist Ethan Iverson's remarkable 2009 interview with Keith Jarrett, in which the latter discusses life on the road with his classic American Quartet in disarmingly candid fashion: "If I hadn’t had Paul [Motian] as an ally, I’d probably be in a mental institution," etc.)

And because c) for a long while, TBP seemed like a collective you could really rally behind, a true all-for-one band, both on and offstage. (I wrote in 2010 about how the Iverson/Anderson/King lineup's collective identity only made the music feel that much richer and more distinctive.) I was not an early adopter when it came to these guys, but once I really took notice, appropriately around the time of the first Never Stop, I was firmly On Board.

But, you know, things change, and it sounds like in this case, with Reid Anderson and Dave King continuing on in the group and Iverson setting out on his own, it's absolutely for the best. On a pure fan level, I was a little worried there for a second — not least re: what would become of the other fine projects new TBP recruit Orrin Evans is involved in, most prominently the outstanding Tarbaby — but having heard Never Stop II, the whole thing makes a lot more sense. And by that I mean, and I tried to get at this in my review, this is still the Bad Plus you know and love. (To an immediate and almost comically extreme degree — I fully agree, for example, with Nate Chinen's statement re: the album-opening Anderson composition "Hurricane Birds" that "...anyone who has followed The Bad Plus over the years would be able to identify it after hearing the first chord of the song." From where I'm sitting, Anderson's compositional voice is indeed the heart and soul of the group, and it's sounding sturdier than ever on this record.) And if Reid Anderson and Dave King are still deeply engaged with this aesthetic and Ethan Iverson isn't, then mazel tov to all of them to figuring that out before the whole enterprise derailed. As a fan, also, of Iverson's outside work — with Billy Hart, Albert "Tootie" Heath, etc. — I'll absolutely be keeping an eye/ear out for whatever he's got coming down the pike, not least that Mark Turner duo album on ECM.

As bright as the future looks, I'm really glad I got to see TBP Mark 1 one last time, last month at the Vanguard, just two nights before Iverson's final bow with the group. Honestly, despite any lingering background tensions, the set I caught played out like pretty much all the other Bad Plus gigs I'd seen at the Vanguard and elsewhere in recent years, which is a decent amount. The set, filled with classic (to me, at least) songs like "My Friend Metatron," "You Are" and "1979 Semi Finalist," reminded me that this band transcends "jazz" in the way that any great band transcends its context. You're there, hearing them, and all that matters are the songs. That I can envision hearing Orrin Evans, Reid Anderson and Dave King play the Never Stop II songs in that same room and feeling that same way is one happy notion.

No comments: