It was a whole 19 years ago that the Bad Plus announced their arrival in the jazz world with their second album, their major label debut, These Are the Vistas. The two things that earned this unique jazz piano trio so much attention were their unorthodox cover choices and their decidedly non-jazz sound. Not only did they cover the likes of Blondie, Aphex Twin, and Nirvana, but they also approached their originals in the manner of a progressive rock combo. Tricky rhythms, modern piano harmonies, and highly individualistic melodies gave them an edge in a genre that often gets hung up on purity. That was only the beginning.
The Bad Plus would record 12 studio albums with pianist Ethan Iverson, including a cover of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and a collaborative album with saxophonist Joshua Redman. After Iverson’s departure, drummer Dave King and bassist Reid Anderson reached out to Orrin Evans to fill his spot. After releasing two albums of all original material in 2018 and 2019, Evans would bow out to focus on his solo career. Rather than find a new pianist, King and Anderson have filled the vacancy with guitar and saxophone instead.
With saxophonist Chris Speed and guitarist Ben Monder on board, the Bad Plus are now a quartet and have chosen to mark their new chapter with a self-titled album. Now that the piano has been replaced by saxophone and guitar, you might catch yourself assuming that the former would handle the lead duties while the latter took on a chordal role. But if you’ve followed this group for any stretch of time, you’ll know that things aren’t that simple with the Bad Plus.
While Iverson’s forceful piano work is absent, Anderson and King’s compositional styles remain intact, providing four new compositions apiece that inject modern jazz with that same Bad Plus edge that hooked listeners so long ago. This time, the roars and moans of Monder’s guitar replace the thundering keyboard work while Speed does everything he can to make his horn both a lead and rhythm instrument. The results aren’t exactly new, but they are new to the Bad Plus, and everyone seems to fall into their respective roles very easily.
Right off the bat, Monder embraces his new job by draping a set of mysterious arpeggios over the opening track “Motivations II”, setting the stage for a wonderfully understated melody from Speed. It sounds like something from Simon Fisk’s Radiohead phase, blending the elements of jazz and psychedelic Britpop so thoroughly that you can’t get away with calling it either. In contrast, King’s composition “Sick Fire” has such a crazy melodic figure that Monder can’t help but smear it a little as he plays in unison with Speed, ruling it out as hard bop. “Sun Wall” gets to have it both ways with its gently stuttering melody, the robust rhythm section, and Monder’s spikey-yet-atmospheric approach.
Speaking of robust rhythm sections, all this attention to sax and guitar shouldn’t shift focus from what has always been the Bad Plus’ backbone – the mighty duo of King and Anderson. The blueprints of their chemistry are all over The Bad Plus, from the cool strut of “Not Ever Close to Far Off” to the ever-shifting downbeat in “The Dandy”. Even the more subdued numbers like “You Won’t See Me Before I Come Back” and “Stygian Pools” cannot help but show off the tightly-calibrated stopwatch that is the drum’n’bass team, King and Anderson.
As “The Dandy” begins to wind down, Speed’s soft syncopation becomes part of the background as Monder’s guitar becomes drawn out in soaring, sustaining feedback. It’s just another indication of how the Bad Plus set their own rules, no matter who is flying in the lead. The Bad Plus makes a convincing case for the new lineup and puts the quartet’s vitality on full display, shrugging away any notions that the Bad Plus are past their prime. Whether you view this as a new group or not, the results are equally as compelling. They didn’t really need it to, but the Bad Plus got themselves a new lease.