The Bad Plus adds fun to jazz—as long as they stay clear of Queen covers

By Nick Morrison

These are the Vistas, the Bad Plus’s first major label record, released in 2003, remains one of my favorite albums almost two years after I first heard it. And I think it will remain a sort of minor cornerstone in music history, if only by being the first-ever recorded jazz performance of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (Nirvana’s seminal grunge track from the album Nevermind). The opening track, “Big Eater,” is one of those tracks that you can tell has a “weird rhythm” (the head of the tune shifts back and fourth between seven-eight and six-eight), but like so many great Led Zeppelin tunes, remains utterly danceable and funky.

The trio, consisting of pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson, and drummer/miscellaneous-objects-player David King, proceeds to romp cheerfully through lounge-y jazz-blues, quasi-instrumental rock, an Aphex Twin cover, a Blondie cover, and hyper-formal free jazz. Overall, the music is intense, often difficult, and not particularly cool; on the contrary, it seems to strive for a balance between schmaltz and ironic transcendence, although there are also the undeniably, achingly gorgeous tunes (“Silence is the Question,” “Everywhere You Turn”). Their second effort, Give, was a step further in all directions: more intense, more difficult, and even less cool. It ends with a completely ridiculous, though very entertaining, cover of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.” Their fantastic cover of indie classic “Velouria” presumably earned them their opening spot on the Pixies’ recent tour.

The Bad Plus’s success has not been discreet. As the commercial music press seeks to unearth all the secrets of their popularity in an age uninterested in serious new jazz, the crossover status they’ve gained by virtue of their repertoire comes up again and again. Beyond that, however, and beyond their undeniable virtuosity as musicians and composers (all three members contribute original tunes), there is also a punky energy that is somewhat lacking from most serious contemporary jazz, which can veer toward either the boringly conservative and predictable or the opaquely abstract. The melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic content is also distinct from African-influenced progressive jazz, with its intense grooves and spiritual energy (and complete lack of commercial success).

But in Symphony Hall? The Bad Plus in the same space as the CSO? Well, Daniel Barenboim’s grand piano sounded good under Mr. Iverson’s hands, and there was a young, small, but audible fan base ready to cheer them on; still, there were several things amiss. Aside from the usual acoustic problems with a jazz combo in such a huge hall (the bass is the first thing to be lost—along with Mr King’s fantastic kick-drum work), the material presented was pushing all of their tendencies a step too far. The European free-jazz-influenced tunes seem to have become mere exercises in form; Anderson and King’s rock-oriented compositions are exhibiting repetitive and predictable tendencies; and quoting Queen’s “We Are the Champions” seems like an easy crowd pleaser to me.

As always, when musical alienation from performers that one loves and respects sets in, it can be hard to grasp the cause. It could be that the large room and obviously ambivalent audience sapped some of the group’s energy, or that the loss of musical detail from bad acoustics deadened the performance. No one doubts that the Bad Plus are extremely creative and versatile musicians, but I also wonder whether they wouldn’t make better music if they were just a little bit more relaxed.

Relaxed is, of course, exactly what Bill Frisell—who, at age 54, is an established genius of the electric guitar—can afford to be. The first time you put on a Frisell album, you’ll inevitably be a little confused…is that a guitar or a horn section? Jazz guitar, from Wes Montgomery to Pat Methany, has been an essentially from-your-Gibson-Hollowbody-straight-to-your-clean-sounding-amp affair.

Shaped by a diverse set of influences—perhaps the most noticeable of which to jazz audiences are the strands of country and bluegrass—Frisell usually plays a solid body Fender Telecaster, a guitar traditionally associated with country and rock. As if this were not heresy enough, Frisell makes full use of various effects pedals (foot-operated signal processors), including several varieties of distortion, reverb, loop and delay (echo).

Electric guitar in jazz contexts has always sought to prove itself to be somehow as pure as a saxophone or piano by shunning such devices, but Frisell has never shied from them, and as a result, he now has one of the most distinctive (and much emulated) sounds in jazz. His new album with drummer Paul Motian and saxophonist Joe Levano is one of the finest new jazz CDs around.

For his date at Symphony Hall, Frisell came accompanied by the Unspeakable Orchestra, of his recent album Unspeakable; the quintet, made up of drums, bass, and a string trio, did not look ready to play traditional jazz. The Bad Plus and Bill Frisell were symphony hall’s SBC-sponsored Jazz Night for May (they usually have one or two per month), and while it is not the only difficult or eclectic music on the calendar, I can imagine the confusion felt by the CSO regulars.

Midway through Frisell’s gorgeous, jazzy soul-funk set, during a break between songs, about a third of the audience got up and left—literally walked out as the band retuned for the next song, presumably wondering what had become of “jazz.” Frisell played another quick tune, and then leaned over to the mic and said, “Uhhh, well I guess I should say something, right? Thanks for coming? Sorry…?” The remaining audience cheered and cheered, assuring him that it was only the subscribers who had come unprepared, that he was well loved by everyone else.

Before the encore, Frisell mentioned wanting to play a protest song, and modestly expressed his political cynicism with the words, “Sometimes I get so sad.” And indeed, the lilting, mellow, swampy music that filled Symphony Hall for that second hour—a new old sound forged from the recycled musical idioms of 50 years ago—was a kind of protest, one that seemed to resonate profoundly with an audience puzzled by the extremist experiments of the Bad Plus.