Although The Bad Plus (bassist Reid Anderson, drummer David King and pianist Ethan Iverson) have spent most of 2009 touring with vocalist Wendy Lewis in support of their album For All I Care, it was back to basics, if that word can be applied to anything the trio does, for a pair of shows that were part of the Highline Ballroom’s piano series.
Of course, late August is a bad time for a series of anything in NYC, except for buses out of the city perhaps, which led to a full, but hardly packed room for Friday night’s late show. The Highline, a venue that opened with five nights of moe. followed by a series of gigs from the Disco Biscuits, has done plenty to make itself into the only larger jazz club in New York (aside from the relatively conservative Jazz at Lincoln Theater), hosting old masters like Charles Lloyd and McCoy Tyner and luminaries like Josh Redman and Brian Blade – mostly headier, edgier characters who can draw double the capacity of more storied clubs like Birdland and the Village Vanguard. So it was no surprise that the always hip and quirky Bad Plus found themselves featured artists during the weeklong celebration.
They opened the late show with Metal, a tightly syncopated composition seemingly designed to showcase King’s energetic, playful percussion in a series of solos (even if it is a cover). As the song progressed, those solos grew bigger and looser, an early indication of the set’s theme: the show was an exposition of David King and his huge personality and smile.
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With Reid Anderson’s Dirty Blonde the second theme was also raised: it was nearly a greatest hits set played with the stylish grace and ease of three masters of their material. They were each deep in his own zone, Iverson playing a sparse, barren lead while Anderson stood straight and still center stage, tying the event together both visually and musically with his fast fingering. Later, the pianist was hunched over his instrument as the rhythm shifted and set up a stellar passage that left King grinning wildly and the audience cheering.
During Bill Hickman at Home the green lit mirror balls and blue spotlights pushed the quirky factor a bit over the top, especially considering the drawling, slow blues and its comical intro about the stunt driver. King was brushing the skins with his hands during Anderson’s long, melancholy solo – it was inaudible and somehow totally appropriate, reassuring that the gesture was made even if the drummer was the only one who could hear himself playing. However on the following joint, he was hardworking his high hat, thundering across his toms and playing the cymbal stand; making goofy faces and firing out a wicked counterpoint to Iverson’s pretty melody. Similarly, after a long, long intro about Lyle Mays, a boom box and lost accolades, King led his band mates in a truly bombastic charge at 1980 World Champion.
The arrhythmic and wanky Old Money found the drummer doubled over while Iverson raced across the keys and Anderson crawled spider-like over his strings before flying into a slamming, super hot groove. The music then opened up and slouched out into the New York night – great stuff. The Iverson tune was so very different from Anderson’s Everywhere You Turn, which followed, achingly beautiful in its swelling earnestness. The band was deep in its sweet spot by this point, and even though the lights were stupid, simplistic rock show drum solo lights, as the trio tore into Simple Variations > Big Eater, the couple seated nearby, who earlier were grasping each other’s arms across the table, bracing themselves against the intensity of the event, were now separated, she with eyes locked on the kit and grinning, he with his head in his hands, moments away from succumbing to the ear splitting crashes.
Moving toward the end game, Iverson declared, “The Bad Plus is against bull fighting,” before tucking into Rhinoceros Is My Profession. This type of song is quintessential Bad Plus: engaging and animated physically and sonically. It’s playful and entirely expressive of virtuosity at the same time. The show closed with Life on Mars, starting, past Anderson’s slow reading of the chorus, quiet and open. But then it began to froth and spill over, getting in its own way at what the song is really about. And before long a frenzy boiled over on stage, filling the room with tumult and spectacle, even before Iverson began pounding out the chorus again, absolutely crushing the song.
Iverson answered a crowd of calls for Physical Cities with a totally deadpan, “We’re not going to play Physical Cities. But it’s super awesome that you shout for it.” Instead, The Bad Plus encored with Tom Sawyer, the Rush cover being a big part of the band’s second wave of widespread recognition as cutting edge outsiders outraging the traditionalists a few years back. It was a great choice to glaze the set, but really nothing could top that Bowie cover. Damn that was good.