Christopher O'Riley's Bad Plus Epiphany
Three summers ago, I went to Istanbul to play an evening's recital of my Radiohead transcriptions at the Istanbul Jazz Festival. After the early-evening concert, my guide Sinan and I traipsed down from the concert hall to the amphitheatre to hear Joan Baez perform an amazing set. Then I was told of a midnight show at Club Babylon — on one of Istanbul's numberless and colorful side streets — featuring an American jazz trio called The Bad Plus. I'd never heard them before, but they made an immediate impression.
Pianist Ethan Iverson makes a Kmart business suit look good. Maybe it's the skinny tie, or the contrastingly hip-to-the-instant eyewear, or the sensually manicured facial hair beneath the broad expanse of his bald head. Maybe it was his wry and arcane wit as the group's frontman, as he recited, with deadpan delivery, these words to Black Sabbath's heavy-metal anthem "Iron Man."
Has he lost his mind? / Can he see or is he blind? / Can he walk at all? / Or if he moves will he fall? / Is he alive or dead? / Has he thoughts within his head? / Well, just pass him there / Why should we even care?
The band followed with its own version of the song, another one of the group's ironic but devoted paeans to antecedent songwriters of surprisingly broad genres. They've covered Björk, Blondie, Babbitt, Rush, Neil Young, Ligeti, McCartney, Nirvana, Radiohead and Stravinsky, among others.
Iverson's own journey with the piano has found him well-trod through a great expanse of styles, both classical and jazz. His personal style is informed by his deep interactions and reverence for master musicians of the past and present. The same is true of the other two members of the band. Iverson is a great composer in his own right, and his passion and discernment make great contributions to the band's blog, Do the Math.
David King, drummer for The Bad Plus, is my all-time favorite drummer, and as a composer, he's the equal of his trio-mates (I've played King's "Anthem For The Earnest" and "1972 Bronze Medalist.") He is also the boundlessly antic and joyful source of kinetic energy for the band. In person, he most closely resembles his percussive Sesame Street doppelganger, Animal.
Standing midway between the brain and the pulse is the heart and heartthrob of The Bad Plus, bassist Reid Anderson. In the few years I've been listening to and following the group, I've never seen this Curtis Institute-trained bassist pick up a bow, yet his instrument never ceases to sing and weave lines of such buoyancy as to surpass the capability of a plucked instrument. As a composer, the sense of the Romantic line — both lyric and epic — marks his originals. "Lost of Love" is a title (a typo for "lots of love"?) as cryptic and inevitable as many of Reid's works. Musically, it's a processional of intimacy, with a whiff of pop ballad not too far removed.
As much as The Bad Plus defines new jazz, "Lost of Love" is only partially improvised, a lyric outpouring of Wagnerian breadth and sweep, scored for piano, bass and drums. But the magisterial magma of the piece is Iverson's piano playing. It is magnificent and intimate every time I've heard them play it.
It was the unique contrapuntal weave that The Bad Plus brings to everything it plays — the heart-rending beauty of Anderson's tune, and Iverson's own virtuoso reimagining of the piano's capability and capacity — that wouldn't leave my brain until I'd made it work for myself on the piano.
Christopher O'Riley is a concert pianist and the host of the radio and television program From the Top.
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