Perhaps best known previously for their sometimes radical re-imaginings of rock and pop songs, The Bad Plus appear to have entered a new phase with last year's release of Never Stop, their first CD of all original compositions. Their St. Louis performance Wednesday night at Jazz at the Bistro was their first appearance here since Stop. Based on the enthusiastic response, TBP's sizeable following seems more than happy to proceed along with them, even without the familiarity of covers drawn from the songbooks of groups such as Nirvana, the Pixies, Rush and Black Sabbath.
Together now for ten years, pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King have developed a distinctive style that mostly eschews familiar jazz tropes such as the twelve-bar blues, swing rhythms and the head-solos-head form. Instead, they continue to draw inspiration from rock, classical and electronic dance music, integrating those elements into the kind of collective improvisation possible only from musicians with extensive experience performing together.
Their second set Wednesday night at the Bistro featured a good helping of material from Never Stop, but also incorporated songs from their 2004 CD Give and 2005's Suspicious Activity?. The set opener "2 PM" was highlighted by rapid-fire exchanges between Iverson and King, whose overflowing energy had him bouncing up off his drum throne to add emphasis to a couple of phrases.
King certainly is the most volatile and visually interesting member of the Bad Plus, but for all his reputation as a heavy hitter, he displayed outstanding control of dynamics throughout the set, tapping out complex, syncopated rhythms on his ride cymbal and extracting varied timbres from his modest kit at a variety of volume levels.
"Rhinoceros Is My Profession" featured an extended solo from Iverson over an ascending line from bassist Anderson, with King's rambunctious interjections serving as commentary, while "My Friend Metatron" found the pianist building a wash of overtones with his right hand, punctuated by bass-register bombs from his left.
Anderson's composition "People Like You" was another standout number. A contemplative ballad played relatively straight, the song featured a slow build under Iverson's statement of the melody, with King initially using just a single brush and a bare hand to keep time, then deploying his sticks as the music swelled before finally subsiding with a bittersweet, unresolved chord.
Later in the set, the techno- and minimalist-influenced "Never Stop" closely resembled the recorded version, with a terse melody, fast-moving chord progression, and a driving 4/4 beat given added drama by repeated dance music-style breakdowns.
The first part of the set closer "The Radio Tower Has A Beating Heart" contrasted a simple three-note motif with more elaborate interludes. Iverson's florid arpeggios evoked those romantic pieces often deployed by classical concert pianists to showcase their fancy finger work. This was immediately subverted, however, by more left-hand bombs and a segue to a contrasting, almost folkish melody. Like the rest of the show, it was both heartfelt and somewhat tongue-in-cheek, executed with impressive skill.
Setlist. 10:15 p.m. show:
2 PM Rhinoceros Is My Profession 1979 Semi-Finalist My Friend Metatron People Like You Who's He? The Empire Strikes Backwards Dirty Blonde Never Stop The Radio Tower Has A Beating Heart