With the galvanic addition of Joshua Redman, The Bad Plus is now made up of four intense virtuosos whose musical intelligence is as impeccable as their instrumental chops.
The Bad Plus Joshua Redman. Presented by World Music/CRASHarts at the Berklee Performance Center on October 25.
By Michael Ullman
The cooperative trio The Bad Plus, now a quartet thanks to the addition of tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman, opened its Berklee Performance Center concert with bassist Reid Anderson’s composition “Love is the Answer.” (On its latest disc the quartet plays a tune called “Silence is the Question.”) The title suggests a sentimental outing, but the music wasn’t. It never is with this powerfully original group, whose compositions may be based on the simplest of repeated melodies but are complicated by wide-ranging harmonic excursions and by the vivid, free-ranging rhythms provided by the brilliant drummer Dave King. The piece began with hymn-like block chords from pianist Ethan Iverson. The melody, or its second part, emerged over the drums and bass. Iverson seemed to hang over the rhythm melodramatically like a dark cloud. It was a witty as well as a satisfying opening, eccentric in how it dovetailed complex improvisations (group and solo) with a folksy, if funereal, melody any of us could hum.
The trio has been together since 2000. Each member composes for the band. Perhaps because of the team’s longevity, The Bad Plus’s compositions seem to reflect the sensibility of a common voice. They are equally witty, even when it comes to their titles, such as “Faith Through Error” and “Lack the Faith But Not the Wine,” both of which the group played at Berklee. (Some intriguingly named numbers in the show: “Prehensile Dream” and “The Empire Strikes Backwards.”) These titles might suggest a slightly dotty philosophic attitude, but there is an imaginative method to the group’s gentle madness: The Bad Plus has recorded an album of rock songs, a remarkable re-imagining of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and, perhaps even more remarkably, variations on a theme by the modernist composer Milton Babbitt.
In other words, they’re nothing if not bold, yet their wildest excursions are both accessible and controlled. Redman’s improvisations sometimes had him hopping and balancing on one leg as if he couldn’t contain himself, but at his most excited moments he was frequently playing a more intense version of the composed melody. And he finished with what must be composed, or at least agreed upon, phrases played in unison with Iverson. The group’s writing goes well beyond the simple head of the tune. “Faith Through Error” proffered a circular melody played with a “Flight of the Bumblebee” manic insistence that led up to a shrieking climax; but Anderson’s solo was thoughtful, with space between phrases—it was as if he were listening to himself, a bit surprised at how his improv evolved. “County Seat” sounded driven to the max, but the peaceful “Beauty Has It Hard” came off like a pop song whose harmonies somehow slipped into complications no one could have anticipated.
One of the longest lasting small groups in jazz, The Bad Plus is also one of the most creatively satisfying. With the galvanic addition of Redman, the ensemble is now made up of four intense virtuosos whose musical intelligence is as impeccable as their instrumental chops. They write exquisitely crafted originals in a startling range of styles. Sometimes they do the seemingly impossible (their “Rite of Spring”) or indulge in re-workings of Pink Floyd. They are adroit and sophisticated performers, but no one will be intimidated when listening to tunes like the lovely pastoral “Beauty Has It Hard.” At Berklee, they earned two well-deserved standing ovations.
Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the U. of Michigan, from which he received a PhD in English. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, and other venues. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling, and others have appeared in academic journals. For over 20 years, he has written a bi-monthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. At Tufts University, he teaches mostly modernist writers in the English Department and jazz and blues history in the Music Department. He plays piano badly.