The Bad Plus drummer takes another swipe with his new band and hits the sweet spot for modern roots jazz.
I'm a little scared for the future of the modern jazz trio The Bad Plus. Not that there's anything wrong with them at the moment. Their last two albums were the sturdiest of their career and their live shows continue to dazzle. All three members are allowed to indulge themselves in various projects outside of the band. Drummer Dave King has two solo albums and now two albums under the name of his other band, the Dave King Trucking Company. It's this 2013 release, Adopted Highway, that threatens to bury the legacy of The Bad Plus like it's nothing. The music within this album is so weird and alluring that Ethan Iverson and Reid Anderson are really going to have to pull off a miracle with King in the studio next time to top it.
Dave King's main thing these days is welding Midwestern American roots music to jazz. Most of the band has ties to the Midwestern America, which helps make quick work of King's ambitions. The only odd man out is Chris Speed on tenor saxophone, who comes from New York. Anyone who has more than one recording featuring Speed already knows that the guy can play just about anything. Rounding out the Trucking Company are Erik Fratzke on electric guitar, Adam Linz on bass and Brandon Wozniak offering another tenor sax to give Speed the push and pull the band needs. King wrote five of the seven tracks, but you'd be mistaken to believe that they are all rhythmically driven. The opening bars of Adopted Highway let you know that this is not a head-bobbing album. "I Will Live Next to the Wrecking Yard" right away finds King refusing a groove rather than embracing it. The meter and the downbeat shift almost constantly, yet Fratzke and Linz are right there with him the whole time. Speed and Wozniak are somehow able to play a melody over this thing.
But King also composed "This Is a Non-Lecture", a song that grows into something too abstract and mysterious to sound like it came from the drummer's chair. I say this because at one point, about two minutes into the track, everything goes silent. Then Erik Fratzke begins to make an absolute racket as King gently brushes his cymbals. At times Fratzke's instrument doesn't even sound like an electric guitar. Fratzke has his own contribution at the end, "Bronsonesque", an intentionally clumsy swing that hangs on two very blue notes. Adopted Highway can also play with your sense of harmony, as it does on "Ice Princess". Chris Speed and Brandon Wozniak work King's theme in a particular key. Union arpeggios set the scene for...a very unusual modulation to occur in the middle of a melody. And this is about hockey groupies?
But Adopted Highway is not an album that keeps listeners at a distance. There is something much more engaging going on with this music, a finger emerging from the polyrhythms and acrobatic melodies beckoning you to step inside and see what it's all about. If Dave King and his band would have made a terribly pretentious album, I wouldn't be concerned about The Bad Plus's future. But that's not what happened here.