Bad Plus drummer Dave King is no stranger to the art of side projects. His latest band is, all in all, not bad.
While Ethan Iverson may do all of the talking between songs at Bad Plus shows, I've always had the impression that the contemporary jazz trio were more democratic than that. Pianist Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson, and drummer Dave King have divvied up their compositional contributions pretty evenly over time, so it's not surprising that they all had solo projects in which to dump their surplus of extra material. Happy Apple, the Bad Plus' brother trio of sorts, was one such outlet for King to further his writing and drumming. Last year, he released Indelicate, a collection of 12 originals that showcased his drumming and piano skills. After its release, Iverson wrote a blog post reminding King that he was not the pianist for the Bad Plus (Don't worry, it was kind of a joke).
King has now formed a new band with tenor sax badasses Chris Speed and Brandon Wozniak, guitarist Erik Fratzke, and bassist Adam Linz, and he's dubbed the project The Dave King Trucking Company. King wrote seven of the eight songs on this debut album, Good Old Light, and the results are surprisingly varied. Some of it has less to do with traditional jazz than even the Bad Plus, which can already be quite the stretch for more conservative-minded listeners. The first track, though it is not indicative of the album's overall sound, gives a hint that this is no ordinary side project. "April in Gary" is played on what sounds like a prepared piano (King is the only one with piano credits), perusing a desolate scale in search of some conclusion. If I were to take a wild guess, I'd say that this piece pits the image of one of the nicest months of the year against one of the most depressed cities in America. The next song, "You Can't Say 'Poem in Concrete,'" gets Speed and Wozniak into the picture, but the song is definitely treated more as a symmetrical pop song than arty jazz. Dave King's drum fills are bafflingly basic, and Fratzke's harmonic interaction with the saxophonists is absolute easy street.
After that, the post-bop signposts are more frequent, occasionally steering the Trucking Company towards rockier territory. "I Am Looking for Strength" and the Erik Fratzke original "Tram" sound like they could have come from the Rudy Van Gelder days of rapid-fire ride cymbals and puncturing horn lines. Then he trades it all for a solitary, bluesy feeling on the loopy "Payphone" and the near-lullaby reflections of "Church Clothes w/ Wallet Chain." The oddball truly worth taking away from Good Old Light is "Hawk Over Traffic." While King pushes the backbeat with a head full of steam, the rest of the band comes and goes in a seemingly unnatural pattern. Again, taking a stab in the dark here, this could be the hawk sitting on a lamppost waiting to swoop down for its lunch at a moment that only the hawk can predict. Tension is established; vamps are staked; solos abound. In the last two-plus minutes of its ten-minute length, Chris Speed and Brandon Wozniak repeat a descending figure as King and the rest steadily fade out. And then they play it again. And again. And when you swear it's the last time, they play it again.
The album ends with a song that sounds like a final song, in sound and in title. "The Road Leads Home" is another excursion that turns its back on conventional jazz but still embraces the normal, pleasant ideas of harmony and form. It's a nice balance, one that can easily get overshadowed today due to the music's lack of theatrics. But no way will that stop a guy like Dave King. If you wanted a beefed-up version of Happy Apple, have a bite.