September 17, 2010 – Berklee Performance Center
1:00 PM – The Clinic
One of the biggest treats of being a student at Berklee is getting to attend exclusive artist clinics – and the Bad Plus clinic was no exception. I had never seen The Bad Plus perform live, so I was especially excited for the beginning of the clinic when the members of The Bad Plus — Ethan Iverson on piano, Reid Anderson on bass, and David King on drums — entered the stage to huge applause and then began to play two original tunes. The combination of synchronization and yet total individuality among the members was probably the most striking feature of the group. Every member functioned as a feature instrumentalist as well as a traditional rhythm section member, as if riding the chord structure and rhythmic meter like a wave while intermittently providing the rhythmic and melodic foundation. The overall effect was intense, flirting with chaotic while never running off the rails. Essentially, very rock and roll.
When the MC opened the floor to questions most of the students focused on the “sound” and musical direction of The Bad Plus, not surprising since it’s a heady topic. If you’ve ever tried to read about The Bad Plus, you’ll see a varied list of influences like jazz, pop, rock, and descriptive phrases like “jazz for the future,” “if the Coen Brothers put together a jazz trio…,” and the catch-all definition – “avant garde.” The odd descriptions of The Bad Plus arise from their classic jazz instrumentation and palette, their incredibly creative and angular improvisations, and their famous covers of iconic songs from the indie rock catalog, among other genres. So, it wasn’t a huge surprise that students wanted to know how the band decided on their “sound,” what tunes to play, and their often genre-bending identity as a whole.
Each member took turns answering questions, and I couldn’t help but notice how their speaking styles mirrored their musical personas perfectly – Ethan and Reid exuded quirky stoicism while David overflowed with enthusiasm. Each member must have mentioned at least once that they were life long friends before forming The Bad Plus ten years ago (a repetition not lost on David who jokingly asked his band mates to stop dating themselves). Therefore, when asked how the group determined their “style,” Reid explained that choosing the musical direction of the group required little to no discussion since they’ve all shared the same musical taste and artistic vision from the beginning.
And, of course, you had to know that someone was going to ask them about their covers. Like many people, I was first introduced to The Bad Plus through their reinterpretation of Nirvana songs, but I wondered if the group got annoyed by people who only knew them for their covers, as if that had become – dare I say it – their schtick. So when asked why they didn’t include any covers on their newest album, Never Stop, David specifically said it wasn’t because they didn’t like covers. Instead, they were looking for balance on Never Stop since their previous record consisted solely of covers. Also, David informed the audience that most, if not all, of the songs The Bad Plus performs live are originals anyways.
Next, when asked how the band decides on which songs to cover, Ethan made a very poignant remark, saying that the group tries to have a strong purpose behind every reinterpretation they create, encouraging the audience to examine the social, political, or emotional purpose behind playing a cover whether it’s a pop song or jazz standard like Autumn Leaves.
And finally, I think the remark from the clinic that stuck with me the most, especially after seeing their concert that night was Ethan’s answer about The Bad Plus’ sound. I’m paraphrasing here, but he said something along the lines of, The Bad Plus is not concerned with being a “jazz” group. And if you listen to their music, I think it’s clear that their biggest strength is their emphasis on their musical fingerprint rather than any genre or label. After all, jazz is more about rhythm, experimentation, and musical freedom than a pair of brushes and an upright bass….
7:30 PM – The Concert
It might have been that I personally had a better appreciation for The Bad Plus after the clinic, or that the time constraints of the clinic didn’t leave as much room for extended improvisations and solos. Or perhaps it was the vast difference in energy between the clinic, a daytime show right after lunch for a small group of students, and their headlining gig, an evening show packed with fans and brimming with electricity.
Whatever the reason, I felt that there was a remarkable difference between The Bad Plus’ earlier performance at the clinic and their show that evening. If you can imagine the excitement and dynamism from their clinic performance doubled or tripled, you’d understand the vibe of their actual concert. The interplay and musical chemistry between the members and their ten-year-career together was even more evident in their playing. It seemed as though every song was more nuanced and simultaneously aggressive, infused with more energy and subtle humor.
And, of course, the most obvious advantage to playing a full-length show over a mere two songs was the emotional range the artists were allowed to demonstrate. For instance, their new song, “Stitches,” was haunting, melancholy, and sparse, words not often used to describe the usually electric, rock-infused jazz group. The song rose in volume and intensity but never lost its sense of delicateness or fragility. “Stitches” stood in great contrast to most of their catalog, like the crowd favorite “And Here We Test Our Powers Of Observation,” which did not disappoint!
As I mentioned in the clinic portion of this post, The Bad Plus is more than just a “cover” band and performed exclusively original tunes at their concert on Friday. Every two songs or so, Ethan would announce the past two song titles and which member of The Bad Plus had composed them – no one name was more prevalent than another. I found it refreshing that the weight of contributing original songs is evenly distributed among the members of group.
Some of my favorite moments of the evening might have been categorized as “avant garde,” like when David used children’s toys resembling baby rattles for percussion or created eerie static by facing two children’s walkie-talkies toward one another. These seemingly small additions to The Bad Plus’ musical palette were the perfect addition of texture and narrative, and exemplified the group’s imaginative and experimental qualities.
I could describe for hours what it sounded and felt like being at the concert, but you’d be better off experiencing The Bad Plus for yourself. I highly recommend picking up their newest album, Never Stop and seeing them on tour if you have the opportunity.
And Here We Test Our Powers Of Observation
The Empire Strikes Backwards
Stitches (new tune)
Anthem For The Ernest
People Like You
Beryl Loves To Dance
The Radio Tower Has A Beating Heart
(Followed by two unlisted encore tunes)