After nearly two decades, there’s a pretty standard set of accolades music-industry-geek types use to describe piano-bass-drums jazz trio The Bad Plus.
Usually it’s “boundary pushing,” or “genre blending,” or some variation on that theme. And usually it’s due to the band’s esoteric takes on popular music from Nirvana to ABBA. In 2000, when the band formed, a jazz trio playing a rhythmically chopped and screwed version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” felt like a novelty. Today, while it’s more common to see jazz bands tackling pop music (thanks in no small part to The Bad Plus’ example), the move still feels unexpected.
The Minneapolis-formed, New York City-based trio deserves the accolades for its musical deconstructions, absolutely. Last year’s “It’s Hard” was a return to just that, and got plenty of focus Friday night at Jazz at the Oxford, the first of three sets the band played as part of the series.
But the performance also proved (if proof was needed) that the band has much more to offer to the jazz continuum than just “covers.” More than half the 11-song set was dedicated to original compositions by drummer Dave King, pianist Ethan Iverson and bassist Reid Anderson, and on these songs the band unleashed its full power.
Anderson’s “Everywhere You Turn” kicked things off shortly after 8 p.m., highlighted by Iverson’s haunting piano lines and shifting chords. The musicians had fully locked into each other by the next song, King’s “My Friend Metatron,” driving home the tune’s complex rhythms.
Improvisation, that hallmark of jazz, was present throughout the evening, but not necessarily where, or in the way, you might expect. Solos were few and far between — really, only King took what could be called standard solos, earning heavy applause each time he did. On pieces such as “You Are,” the hyper-caffeinated “Mr. Now” and the push-pull soundscape “The Empire Strikes Backwards,” the three musicians wove dense layers of sound with their instruments, operating like cogs in a machine to pull off each piece’s precise rhythm changes.
The songs from “It’s Hard” maybe offered a few breathers for audience members, but not for the band: Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” turned into a stuttering, robotic shuffle punctuated by the instantly recognizable chorus hook, while Kraftwerk’s “The Robots” went the opposite direction, from the machine-like original to an organic, free-form jazz exploration. The trio’s take on Ornette Coleman’s “Broken Shadows” was a highlight, featuring some of Iverson’s most emotive playing.
Every few songs Anderson would hop on the mic to announce titles and generally crack wise with the audience and his bandmates. Between musician introductions, he and King earned some laughs by banging out a few bars of theme music — some welcome levity to punctuate the heavy playing and even heavier musical ideas on display throughout the show.
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