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February 9, 2010

Bad Plus trio jazzes up Mandel Hall

While the Bad Plus played to a packed crowd in Mandel Hall last Friday, heads bobbed, a few air drums were sighted, and an exuberant “That was a great song!” reverberated from the balcony after one particularly crowd-pleasing piece. After three encores and three standing ovations, the Minnesota-based jazz trio finally succeeded in exiting the Mandel Hall stage. Everyone was rooted to their seats in the hopes that bassist Reid Anderson, pianist Ethan Iverson, and percussionist David King would add yet another finale.

Although the Bad Plus has received a lot of attention in recent years for their jazz renditions of popular rock and pop songs, they stuck to their original compositions for this particular Chicago Presents performance.

It certainly was a successful move, if the rapt attention of the audience was any indication. The Bad Plus records without the use of any special electronic effects, so their performance was refreshingly identical to their album. Similarly refreshing was their apparent joy for the music they were playing. Anderson demonstrated his enthusiasm with periodic punctuations of “Whoo!” throughout certain songs.

Their straight-forward approach showcased their talent and—as exemplified by songs such as “Bill Hickman at Home,” “My Friend Metatron,” and “And Here We Test Our Powers of Observation”—their unconventional humor. Another particularly animated song had Iverson standing up over the keys, King scraping the cymbals, and Reid closing his eyes in joyous concentration. “That was ‘2 p.m.,’ my song,” Iverson said, “a song about tea time.”

But those who attended the concert with hopes of hearing smooth jazz appropriate for a mid-afternoon meal of cucumber sandwiches, Earl Grey, and scones sorely misjudged the Bad Plus’s repertoire. Their approach to jazz is quite unorthodox and, although conventional jazz listeners were reluctant to laud them in the band’s early days, their hybrid music has won over many fans with its ability to please otherwise divergent audiences.

The dynamic set list, coupled with Anderson’s periodic exclamations, heightened the sense of excitement that filled the 900-seat auditorium.

The band’s exhilaration was quite apparent during the song “And Here We Test Our Powers of Observation.” Rather than observe the audience’s response to this particular composition, however, band members (with the exception of Iverson, whose face was away from the audience) had their eyes closed in rapture. No investigation was necessary; the audience loved the song.

“And Here We Test Our Powers of Observation” was not the only crowd pleaser of the night. In fact, “1972 Bronze Medalist” may have elicited the largest positive response. Iverson opened the song with a funny introduction about Jacques, a weight lifter who wins big and vows to wear his medal every day of the year. The song features a repetition of the same chords on the piano (presumably the consistently worn medal around Jacques’s neck) with an overlay of free–form notes on the piano, bass, drums, and tambourine.

The band’s original compositions undulate between hypnotic and energizing: While “Love is the Answer” was trance-inducing, the next song to follow—and the first of the Bad Plus’s attempts to end the concert—was the impassioned “The Radio Tower Has a Beating Heart.”

While event advertisements promised to “provide an evening worth talking about,” it seems more accurate that this was an evening worth gushing about.