I’ve never been to a Bad Plus concert, and I can’t even come close to imagining what the crowd at one of their gigs must be like. Over the course of a 10-year recording career, Ethan Iverson (piano), Reid Anderson (upright bass), and Dave King (drums) have straddled the line between high-brow and low-brow, virtuosity and hilarity, jazz and alt-rock, so I assume the seats would be filled with a strange potpourri of flannel-donning slackers, greasy prog-rock purists, and middle-aged NPR-types.
If you’re familiar with The Bad Plus at all, you probably know their milieu thus far: transforming beloved pop and rock standards into complex jazz-trio arrangements, oozing with both slick hotel-lounge professionalism and gritty rock propulsion. They’ve tackled everything from Nirvana’s grunge-spearheading “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to Blondie’s pop-disco classic “Heart of Glass” to Black Sabbath’s seminal metal masterpiece “Iron Man”, and they’ve approached each and every head-scratching selection with equal aplomb and technicality. Truth is, though, for all the surprising innovation The Bad Plus brought to these covers, they ultimately stick out as novelty for players and composers as talented as these. As far as modern jazz goes, these guys are at the top of their class: strikingly original players who mix prog’s thunderous sweep with alt-rock quirkiness and traditional jazz hallmarks. And when they’ve bothered to actually compose their own tunes, the results have often been even more intriguing than their attention-grabbing re-workings.
Which leads us to Never Stop, The Bad Plus’ seventh studio album and their first to feature a tracklist of all originally-composed material. Each player gets a nearly equally-weighted slice of the writing action (Anderson throws in five originals, with three to King and two to Iverson), and the result is an album that, in many ways, feels like a formal introduction to the band’s eclectic talents.
Opener “The Radio Tower Has a Beating Heart” is as thrilling a “hello” as it gets. Iverson cranks out a gorgeous, classically-influenced piano sweep over a free-jazz racket whipped up by Anderson and King. Iverson soon follows, erupting in his own high octave avalanche of melody and a Latin-tinged coda. It’s demented, outrageous, masterfully crafted lunacy that sets a startlingly high precedent for the entire project. Luckily, though, it’s not a fluke — over the course of these 10 tracks (varying in length from two-and-a-half minutes to over nine), The Bad Plus work an impressive range of moods — “2 P.M” is a dense, virtuosic workout; the highly melodic title track is the perfect blend of dizzying rhythms and simple hummable melodies; and on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, the much more spacious mood-setter “People Like You” provides more traditional jazz relief, with bone-dry percussion and upright bass pricks punctuated by Iverson’s glossy keystrokes.
No longer hiding behind irony, The Bad Plus emerge unscathed and even more worthy of applause.