Two jazz "stars" unite for a recording and tour that proves to be more than the sum of its parts.
There’s been so much revolution among jazz piano trios in recent years, and accounts of the trend inevitably point to the Bad Plus: Ethan Iverson (piano), Reid Anderson (bass), and Dave King (drums). The band has a wide range and can “swing” in a traditional way when it so chooses, but the Bad Plus have mainly produced a series of highly structured compositions and strategies for instrumental drama and improvisation, and they have been catchy and cool enough to bring the band significant mainstream success.
It’s only with the release of The Bad Plus Joshua Redman, the band’s first recording with another major player, that I realized that the Bad Plus might be understood as the Dave Brubeck Quartet of our era.
Dave Brubeck, forever known to the public for “Take Five”, was the most popular and prominent jazz musician of his heyday (the late ‘50s and early ‘60s), but his success was improbable and idiosyncratic. He famously wrote and played tunes in odd meters, his piano playing was “heavy” and often bombastic (though he played gently too, and beautifully), his music could be jokey or gimmicky at times and yet he wrote jazz standards too, he courted a fervent following among younger fans who got hipped to jazz by his band, and his band featured a swinging saxophone player whose style very much offset his own and whose fame and jazz legitimacy nearly outshone him.
That’s a pretty good description of the Bad Plus, until you get to that last part about a jazz saxophonist. And now the trio has been supplemented on record and on its recent tour by tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman, a very swinging modern master whose jazz fame precedes and might exceed that of his new collaborators. Redman, the son of Dewey Redman and a Harvard graduate, won the 1991 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition, and he quickly developed a high profile career at a time when such careers were about to fade away with the fortunes of the record industry. Is Redman a natural match for the Bad Plus? Probably not. And that is the wonder and joy of it.
The Bad Plus Joshua Redman is every bit a Bad Plus record. Both the songs and the song titles are clever and idiosyncratic in the manner of previous Bad Plus work. “County Seat” has a jabbering and funky theme for tenor and piano that shuffles through quick changes in time signature such that, well, forget about tapping your toe. And yet it's a groovy feeling tune, irresistible really, until it moves into a wild section that pits Redman against King in pure free-blowing style and then, zip-zap-zop, it’s back to the groove — and done in barely three minutes. Fun, odd, playful, and full of flavors.
“Faith Through Error” (also written by pianist Iverson) is similar: a complex winding melody that gets Redman’s tenor and Iverson’s piano coiling around each other like a pair of vines. Within a minute or so, the whole band is improvising freely only to give way to a King solo and then a wholly new theme for Anderson and Redman together. A more sedate composition, such as King's “Beauty Has It Hard” is nevertheless quirky and modern: an angular theme in 7/4 time that lurches into other sections of time, with the composer playing a solid rock backbeat and trashy cymbals one moment and precise, sensitive time the next. There’s very little improvising until a gorgeous saxophone incantation at the end rides over a simple vamp.
None of this, of course, sounds even remotely like the music of Brubeck, but the similarities are critically instructive. As a rhythm section the Bad Plus emerged almost whole from no perfectly obvious precursor. In the beginning, they were referred to as a “power trio” — loud, even bashing — reminded us how Brubeck was called “bombastic”. But the truth (with both groups) is more complex. On some tunes, such as “Lack the Faith But Not the Wine”, the Bad Plus sounds, perhaps, like one of Keith Jarrett’s early bands, setting up melodies and harmonies that owe relatively little to Tin Pan Alley but attacking the feel of the song in a less pliant manner. Now, however, with Redman riding thrillingly over the band on nearly every tune, there is a delicious sense of contrast. Desmond did the same for Brubeck, putting a layer of velvet over his iron fist . . . and making your realize how very not-iron it really was.
Listening to the long “Friend or Foe”, one of two here composed by Redman, you can also hear the way in which Redman matches his new bandmates. Built around a set of repeated/shifting arpeggios for both piano with an interlocking tenor sax melody, this song sounds largely through-composed with no improvising and shifting parts for over three minutes, at which point the tune goes into a funky half-time over which Redman gets to play in his bluesiest cry, the chords beneath him shifting into a less declarative, more hip and sly direction. That first part of the song seems like Redman showing his “Bad Plus” side, and then the slow part features the new element that he brings to the band.
Redman’s other original is “The Mending”, a stately ballad that Iverson opens solo and then with the trio, shambling across a lovely set of harmonies that bring to mind both Bernstein’s “Somewhere” and those Jarrett bands. But when the saxophone enters, the band comes utterly together as a balanced unit. The four ingenious Reid Anderson compositions on The Bad Plus Joshua Redman all tend to integrate Redman beautifully as well, giving him places to wind his lyrical sound around a compelling structure. On those tunes, however, you can hear the way that the trio would have (satisfyingly) played them without him.
For what it’s worth, the band continues to develop dramatically out on the road. At an early show in Washington, DC, the Bad Plus Joshua Redman played most of the songs on this album, each at greater length, stretching out with expressive ease and joy. The band felt more telepathic and balanced, and there was little or no sense that Redman was a “guest” or an appendage to an already capable unit. Might they stay together? Are they better as a working unit than as separate “stars” in a jazz world where, frankly, being a “star” is a fast-disappearing privilege? It is hard to imagine a world where Coltrane joins Davis at the height of each’s career and then they stay together, but maybe the better analogy is when Joe Lovano and John Scofield co-led a superb band in the early 1990s. It lifted both their careers and helped to define an interesting direction for jazz ensembles that were searching for ways to sell albums and club dates at a time when jazz might have been fading.
Or maybe the best comparison remains the Dave Brubeck Quartet, a band that made music that strangely unlike any other while still sitting at the center of a thriving jazz scene. Paul Desmond still makes me like that band more: he imbues it with a human sound that was still very sophisticated. And that is what’s going on here, as Josh Redman throws a new light, one with a warmer glow, on the already impressive Bad Plus.