By Steve Provizer
The Bad Plus are telling stories, but the trio doesn’t seem to want to follow wherever they might lead, which narrows their music’s emotional range.
Activate Infinity, The Bad Plus (Edition Records)
To be truthful, I have read a lot about The Bad Plus, but nothing that made me want to listen to them. I suppose I should have been more curious, given that they seemed to be that rare group playing improvised music that attracts a young listenership. In any case, what I write here is about what I heard here, on this recording, Activate Infinity, alone. For better or worse, I came with a clean slate.
Bad Plus members Reid Anderson (bass) and Dave King (drums) have been together 18 years. Pianist Orrin Evans recently replaced original member Ethan Iverson in 2018. What I heard here is three musicians who know what they’re doing. They have a variety of tools in their belts and listen hard to each other, so the interplay here is good, if not astonishing. By and large, I didn’t find the compositions striking. And, whether or not by design, I didn’t discern an attempt to evoke many different moods. Despite the fact that King’s drums were extremely active, the overall mood was somewhat gentle, even melancholic. While King and Anderson played with ferocity, and Evans sometimes “let it go,” there was a pervasive sense of restraint.
The publicity states that “writing credits [are] shared between all members.” Yet, it also informs us: “Tracks 1, 2, 7 and 8 by Reid Anderson. Tracks 4 and 5 by Orrin Evans. Tracks 3 and 6 by Dave King.” So, make of that what you will. I describe the tracks in order below.
“Avail” – Pianist Evans starts off with a stately repeating melody with drums accompanying freely, yet in tempo. A second keyboard arrives to thicken the texture. The harmony is open, almost in a Satie vein. Then, piano begins to roam and there’s a bi-tonal feel created with the other piano. Piano returns to the original repeating melody while the drums keep kicking all the way through. Bass roves freely, but is also keeping time. For my taste, the bass is mixed a little low.
“Slow Reactors” – Medium tempo is softly kept by drums, while piano and bass play with motifs that are strung together to create a melody. The key changes, but the feeling remains the same. Drums provide a steadier backbeat, but piano and bass continue their cat-and-mouse play. Drums slightly alter their sound, keeping the same tempo and piano intensifies a bit, still holding back; then, slowly, it picks up intensity. The train is moving at half speed, but the scenery slowly and interestingly shifts. Then, the train slowly reverses, not slowing down, but moving back to the terminal.
“Thrift Story Jewelry” – This offers a deceptively simple, mode-ish melody, again in a medium tempo. Piano improvises fairly aggressively, with the occasional Herbie Hancock resonance. Drums are busy, but don’t overwhelm. The trio balance is excellent here. Drums solo with some shifts in texture and touch, then piano and bass reenter with the original melody. A short walking tempo takes it out.
“The Red Door” – Another medium tempo composition, with drums working the cymbals and piano punctuating an intro that takes up another repeated riff-melody before moving into a more straight-ahead swing. After this, the tempo becomes a free-floating affair, with a pulse buried fairly low beneath the surface. Piano ranges over the keyboard more than on any previous track, with a more insistent left hand. Piano then moves into a melodic, repeated riff with bass support. The drums are still free until they move into a solid group time that has an almost Latin feel. Piano briefly and lightly prances and we close.
“Looking into Your Eyes” – a ballad, with a standard bass line and light drum touches. The track toys with cliché, but skirts it with some harmonic surprises that provide some originality. There’s a sparse improvisational section and no repeat of the melody.
“Dovetail Nicely” – A medium up-tempo tune. The melody, again, is riff-like and somewhat fanciful. King on drums carries a lot of the energy load and he is very responsive to his group-mates’ movements. The bass hews mostly to a repeated figure while the vigor in the piano rises and Evans toys with some dissonance. The trio returns to the initial repeated riff. Piano improvises lightly around the repeated bass and rhythm section to a fade and a quiet stop.
“Undersea Reflection” – Another medium up-tempo composition, though with a more complicated melodic approach. The opening includes a repeated riff, unusual harmony, and a semi-stop time melody. The initial riff returns before the arrival of a third section that also repeats — but with a different riff. The group slides into an improvisation that seems to follow the unusual three-part pattern of the opening section. While no single member is doing anything particularly noteworthy, hewing to this pattern, along with the group interplay, makes this development section interesting. Then, a quick coda and out.
“Love Is the Answer” – A quiet piano intro moves to a medium-tempo melody that exudes a somewhat enigmatic quality. It hearkens, again, to Satie. The band moves together and then lets piano emerge once again with that quiet melody. Anderson on bass does an excellent job on his only solo on the recording. The drummer concentrates on snare and propels the group quietly. When piano returns to solo, there is an infusion of energy, but the album’s sense of restraint remains. The group glides easily into a restatement of the melody, but with more active drumming. Then comes a long close, the piano repeating a riff while the bass solos beneath, leading to a quiet final chord.
On the one hand, Activate Infinity holds your attention. The group is well in sync, moving seamlessly from one section to the next, and there are flashes of virtuosity on everyone’s part. King, in fact, drums with impressive intensity and variety, his keen sense of dynamics promising something exciting that’s not delivered by the group as a whole. It’s difficult to diagnose why this combustion doesn’t occur. The Bad Plus is telling stories, but the trio doesn’t seem to want to follow wherever they might lead, which narrows their music’s emotional range.
Steve Provizer writes on a range of subject, most often the arts. He is a musician and blogs about jazz here.