The Bad Plus, the piano/bass/drums jazz trio that has been breaking the mold for about 15 years, returns to its own compositions with Inevitable Western after releasing its version of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” earlier in 2014. That exercise, however, was as “Bad Plus” as anything else they have ever done: rigorous in some ways, yet wildly exciting, a form or interpretation but stamped by their own creativity. Most of all, it was entirely surprising. It lacked improvisation, which now returns on Inevitable Western, but the similarities between the two discs are more notable than the differences.
Rite of Spring gave equal weight to each of the trio’s voices, and it balanced thrilling polyrhythms and daring melodic exploration. Inevitable Western does that too, but it also brings back a sense of swing and spontaneous exploration on some tracks. That said, its dominant features are hardly “jazzy”. The tunes are built around complex time signatures and structures that eschew the usual jazz trope of theme-solos-theme. Rather, even the most bopping track, “Self Serve” by pianist Ethan Iverson, begins with a repetition of a single chiming note, which then leads into a theme dominated by a rock-ish bass line doubled by Iverson’s left band and Reid Anderson’s acoustic bass. As Iverson improvises, the band moves into a rhapsodic post-bop free section, yet a written bass line that refers back to the main theme comes in as a repeated referent. This is the jazz tune and, man, as much as Iverson’s right hand swings and uses blues elements, this is still something with the smack of new about it.
For fans looking for more of the band’s frantic passion, there is Iverson’s “Mr. Now”, on which drummer Dave King plays his heart out in funky fashion, rolling and bashing as the piano plays a knotty running line (written and then improvised) that keeps surprising your ear both rhythmically and melodically. If your head doesn’t bob mightily (but irregularly—careful about a sub-threshold concussion), I’d be surprised. The title track also has a swinging center but takes a different approach, with the tempo moderate, and a loping feel that earns the title “Inevitable Western”, I’d say, with King occassionally providing a clip-clop rhythm that locks in with the sound of Reid Anderson’s bass strings slapping the fingerboard. The tune, also Iverson’s, is melancholy and blues-drenched, ending the collection like an elegy.
The bulk of the material here, however, is more like a set of interlocking drum patterns that shoot into your listening system like arrows. King’s “Gold Prisms Incorporated” is rocking and in 4/4 for longer than most of these tunes, but it still Cuisinarts your brain with syncopation. Iverson uses his right hand to play chiming chords like a drummer while melody is mainly played in the lower register. Just as you get comfortable with any one section, things switch up, with rhythms shifting, stabbing figures lurching, and an Iverson solo that cascades in a thrilling, jagged way. The other two songs by King also excite. “Epistolary Echoes” is a tumbling and uptempo melody that is interrupted by cool sections of hand-claps, leading into a wild Iverson “jazz” solo that still feeds off the handclap sound as it lurks under King’s manic swing and Anderson’s driving bass. “Adopted Highway” is a long, cinematic track with another melody doubled by bass and piano, this time alternating crashes of notes in Iverson’s lowest register with peaceful sections that tinkle and crackle with atmosphere. As the title implies, you’re headed down a road, on a journey with three musicians who are never boring.
Anderson also supplies three tunes. “You Will Lose All Fear” starts as a near-schmaltzy fanfare, a big sound with the whole trio playing at full bore on a simple melody set over a complex mid-tempo, with surprising harmonies cascading down over everything like a chaotic storm. Like rain smearing your windshield to the point of low-visibility, the tune is a tension-builder. “Do It Again” and “I Hear You” are the most charming tracks, each providing consonant harmony and melodies that draw you in, even as the time on each track pushes your ears and pulls the rug out from under a straight groove on nearly every measure. “Do It Again” is the kind of sunny-but-disruptive track that could win over a Beatles fan to the joys of surprise in jazz, shifting from lurching sycopation to straight funk and back again with seeming ease. “I Hear You” leans more toward the trio’s classical side, with a melody that mixes unusual intervals with almost-baroque adornments. Even though the time signature shifts, the song could be described as “stately”—picking up tempo in clearly measured ways as King goads the piano with snare clicks and cymbal work. As the album opener, is it even a way of weaning fans of the Stravinsky album away from classicism back to the trio’s more American ways?
At this point in its career, the Bad Plus is at the height of its powers—commanding a following of listeners who will trust the adventure that every recording brings. It’s notable that they are now signed to Okeh, Sony’s new jazz imprint and—therefore—the successor to the place that Columbia Records used to hold in the jazz world: a major label, a place to which “the record industry” is lifting the jazz artists who might still have a chance to catch on with regular folks and to be—gosh—popular.
The Bad Plus never seems to abuse its popularity. It asks a lot of listeners who may not be out-jazz hounds or classical fanatics, but it provides the pleasures of energy, melody, and honesty. They are creative music heroes, and in Inevitable Western they have another trophy, another triumph. Let’s keep following them into battle.