Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Bad Plus vs. Sideman Syndrome at the Village Vanguard

The Bad Plus opened at the Village Vanguard last night (they're there through Sunday) and I caught the late set. As expected, it was great. The trio was tight, energetic and—crucially—engaged.

With respect to the latter quality, I couldn't help but think back to the last performance I witnessed at the Vanguard. I'll not name names, but it was one of those jazz shows we've all attended way too many times: professional yet perfunctory. Even with a deeply idiosyncratic bandleader, the show just felt depressingly normal, plagued—as jazz so often is—by Sideman Syndrome. There are a few too many players onstage, and for most of the set, they are standing around, waiting to solo. Your ears prick up during the heads, and once they're over, the thread is lost and the energy dips. Round and round go the solos, and even if you didn't just see one of the waiting-his-turn horn players check his watch, you might as well have.

It is often pointed out, by the members of the Bad Plus and by their fans, that the Bad Plus is a BAND, a trio with steady membership (going strong for ten years now, a fact celebrated on Never Stop, my No. 3 album of 2010 yet a surprisingly low finisher in the 2010 Voice Jazz Critics' Poll). That this is an obvious fact doesn't mean it's a negligible one. It's a fact I remember noting the last time I saw the band (in September of ’08), but last night, I couldn't keep my mind off it.

It's impossible to understate the appeal of performers who are very obviously INTO what they're doing, who—in contrast with the Sideman Syndrome scenario—have something at stake. That's how it felt last night: all three men alert and emotionally attuned, passing the energy back and forth, hanging on every detail of the lovingly detailed compositions (all originals, about half drawn from Never Stop, plus an encore version of Aphex Twin's "Flim"). There was none of that standing-around-waiting-to-play nonsense. When pianist Ethan Iverson dropped out near the end of the set to let bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King tussle as a duo, he watched them attentively. It was clear he still had something invested, and it wasn't just that he wanted to make sure he re-entered at the right time. It was that he was performing as part of a BAND (really a composers' collective, if you want to get heady about it, since all three Bad Plus–ers write for the group), not simply a group of musicians playing a gig. The GIG-hood of a performance is, I really think, what people mean when they refer to the death of jazz, that depressing, let's-take-turns-soloing formality that plays itself out night after night after night. I'm not saying that magic can't occur in a conventional pick-up-group format, but I feel that ultimately, what really draws people to this music are BANDS. It's the same in rock: Think of Rush, the classic LEADERLESS trio, all players engaged at all times.

One thing that's great about the BAND-dom of the Bad Plus is that they're not one of those "You have to see them live" outfits. Admittedly, I didn't become a bona fide fan until after I saw them in ’08, but that may have just been because I hadn't spent good time with their recordings. I have spent good time with Never Stop, and I can now say that it's a really wholesome document, totally representative of where the band is at right this minute. I'm not saying "Don't see them live"—if you're in or around NYC, by all means, go this week. What I'm saying is that if you do go, your experience will only be enhanced if you know the band's catalog.

You know that feeling you get when a band you love has recently come out with a new album, and you've listened to it a whole bunch in anticipation for their live show, and they bust out one of the tracks from the record onstage and you feel this ecstatic happiness, this delight in fresh familiarity? (I remember experiencing that sensation at this past April's Ludicra concert.) It was like that last night. Pretty much the whole set grabbed me, but the pieces that shook me to the core were my favorites from Never Stop. King's "My Friend Metatron," with its dancing hyperintricacy, resolving into a folky backbeat groove; Anderson's "Never Stop," a righteous disco-as-object-of-beauty anthem; and "People Like You" (also by Anderson), an extended, elegantly trudging ballad that has to be the single most drop-dead-gorgeous composition of 2010.

All these sounded fantastic last night, and their flawless execution, allowing me to experience these familiar pieces loudly and live-ly, is what I'll take away from the show. In that way, the Bad Plus encourages you to listen to their music like you might listen to your favorite pop or rock, attuning your ear toward the SONG rather than the chance moment of improvisational wizardry. Again, I'm not trying to discount jazz that privileges the latter; I'm just saying that to me, jazz is under no less pressure than any other music to provide outstanding MATERIAL. To provide true songs—HITS even, in the purely aesthetic sense—that aren't just grist for improvisation. Last night, "People Like You" definitely opened up between the bookend theme statements, as I believe "Metatron" did as well, but "Never Stop" featured no solos, just a pure, righteous THEME. All three members of the Bad Plus can—and did last night—solo their asses off, but where they shine most is when they're humbly, self-effacingly PLAYING THEIR MUSIC.

It shouldn't seem like such a novel concept, but it does, applying the solidarity and non-every-man-for-himself-ness (as well as the SONG-forward-ness) of rock to jazz. People notice, believe me. Laal—who, like me, prefers her jazz deep and rapturous (please ignore the ridiculous portrait that adorns that YouTube stream) and has little tolerance for either the blandly conventional or the taxingly abstract—accompanied me to last night's show as well as the aforementioned Sideman Syndrome–afflicted gig. The latter had her rolling her eyes, but of the Bad Plus, she said simply, "I thought it was awesome." What a difference a band makes.


Jason Crane | The Jazz Session said...

Testify, brother. Nicely said.

Clifford Allen said...

Great post. I have some more thoughts but I haven't finished my coffee yet. Saw TBP in Austin last year and it was excellent, if a little unbalanced by the room's acoustics.

Leroy said...

I great post about a great band. I think you've hit the nail on the head here and summed up what TBP are all about - that fine balance between composition and improvisation, between live spontaneity and recorded meticulousness. The BAND reigns supreme and jazz needs to remember it. Nice work.

Anonymous said...

I like hearing a "real" band live. I also like hearing a band of sideman, too, sometimes. (it all depends on "who" the sidemen are)

They're either making it, or not, on stage & thats all that matters.

Why does it have to be one or the other, like why does only one form have to be "cool" & the other way hated on?

Whatever makes me say "yeah!"

aaron shaddy said...

You've summed up the power & eloquence of TBP very well. I took my son to that exact show so it was neat to read your perspective. "People Like You" was intense. My favorite song of the night. The Vanguard set from NYE 2009 has solid version of it as well (It starts at minute 28 here: I agree with your ideas on BAND. What other Jazz Bands exist? I would be interested in your list. How do new jazz performers who are systematically taught to improvise/solo develop stronger core composition & BAND skills? I would guess 10 years of non-stop tour play helps a great deal. Having a band of proficient composers is part of their success as well. Very interesting topic. Thank you.

Rick Hirsch said...

You wrote what I'd write.

If I could write.

And think with clarity.