People Like You
Another sold out audience awaited The Bad Plus as they walked on to the vanguard’s hallowed stage. I have never seen them play to an unresponsive or thin audience. They have somehow done the impossible over the last few years: been at once controversial, influential, and popular(and successful!). In jazz, this doesn’t happen very often, and when it does, it takes a hell of a lot longer than ten years.
My father and stepmother saw the show with me, so when I would usually be breathing in the Vanguard’s aura, I was explaining TBP to them. “They’re not really a jazz band like you think of a jazz band.” I said. “All of the guys write tunes, and they’re all totally different, but there is a crystal clear band sound that they achieve no matter the composer.”
I harbor very little love of rock music, and I have almost no knowledge of classical repertoire. The first time I heard the band, I hated it. The tune was “Anthem for the Earnest”, and all the triads irked me in the midst of my first year university study of seventh chords. One night, my friend had an extra ticket to the sold-out show in Toronto and sold it to me for 20 dollars(situations like this are exactly why I relentlessly check something out when I figure I hate it. Sometimes it turns around.). At that show, I was re-awakened. They played Ornette’s “Song X”, Stravinsky’s “Apollo”, and “Giant”, which is by far my favorite TBP song.
At the time, I was heavy into a Don Cherry phase and was reading David Hadju’s biography of Strayhorn in preparation for an all-Strayhorn concert I was working on, reading about how he was the first Jazz guy to carry the Rite of Spring around with him. Needless to say, my eyes were opened a little bit wider than normal, and I enjoyed the concert, beginning to pick up on the togetherness of the band. Thank goodness. On a hunch, I snuck backstage to talk to Ethan, and the rest is history.
My favorite part about the band is not their language or their idiom, or even their synergy. It’s actually the writing. All three are amazing composers. Each tune sticks in your head, and is at the same time interesting in a Jazz listener sense. The most amazing thing, as I said before, is that as technical and cerebral the written music is, they’ve gotten normal everyday people to enjoy it. It’s the perfect balance, everyone’s happy but the conservatives and the staunch traditionalists. Also, within that, there is a wide compositional range, the types of tunes, I want to say. If you blindfolded a music lover, jazz musician, etc. and played “Cheney Pinata” and “Nostalgia for the Impossible”—both fantastic and idiosyncratic tunes—back to back, no one in their right mind would say that Ethan wrote them both. Perhaps a shrewd composition student perhaps, no one else.
As an avid listener myself, I couldn’t get over the tunes that night. I’ve been trying to write more and more, everyone and their mother has been pushing me, and I have half of a really good tune that I’ve been working on for half a year, and I can’t find the end to it. These guys have been writing fantastic tunes, all in different styles consistently for ten years, and they’re writing within strict confines: the tunes written must please the audience, not offend any sensibilities within the band, and still have that Bad Plus sound. I’m both glad that I’m not in charge of that particular compositional task, and thankful that these guys have the skill to pull it off.
They played all new-ish tunes, with one glaring exception, “Thriftstore Jewlery” by Dave King, which happens to be my second favorite tune of the band’s. I’m glad, because I would like to see “Giant” again live just to hear the band play it acoustically and revel in the moment, but “Thriftstore” is a tune that you want to hear to see what the members will do to it live. The former is a nostalgic experience and the latter a learning experience.
The other tunes were a mish-mash from their new record that’s in the can, and their most recent record, Never Stop, which I’ve heard but don’t own(I should probably fix that. Wouldn’t exactly be too hard to find…). They were all great, from Ethan’s “2 P.M.” to a new tune of Dave’s, the name of which escapes me. Dave, by the way, was blazing like a tire fire the whole night, just unstoppable. I’ve seen that band four times, and he played at a level I’ve never seen him at before. Maybe it was just the Vanguard’s ancient vibes, maybe it was just a good night, maybe he’s been practicing. I don’t know or care. He was on the spot.
Where Dave killed the drums, Reid handled the composing. They played three or four of them, and the two that I remember were far and away the highlights of the show. Next time you see them(or if you wait for the record) keep an eye out for “Seven Minute Mind”. A killer bass line with metric tomfoolery, topped by Ethan’s ridiculous independence and a deep groove from Dave. I’ve asked Ethan twice about his independence, once sneakily and once outright, and the only answer I got was that he plays a lot of bass lines along with melodies or while blowing. You don’t say. I’m pretty sure that he just came out of the womb bouncing a tennis ball while he cut the cord with his right hand, myself. That groove would be hard to line up with two people…
The final tune of the night was “People Like You”. This may be my new favorite tune for the band. A beautiful melody, with a great section over some stark major seventh chords which killed me every time. Stirring writing.
I am now in a position to say that Ethan plays differently with this band. Whenever The Bad Plus hits, he exudes this sort of grandeur, like that of a concert pianist, where as with someone like Billy Hart he’s more introspective. Not less confident, but his lines resolve with a reduced sense of finality. Everything he plays with TBP seems like it was meant to happen, and all loose ends are tied up, whereas the feeling at his other gigs is always open ended, like he could decide to take a sharp left at any point. This isn’t a comment on his playing being more expected with Reid and Dave, it’s to say that the aura he exudes is different.
Although I’ve done a pretty good job at educating my dad in the ways of the Jazz listener, he left the show disliking it. “The drummer might as well have been a rock drummer!!” I tried to convince him that the guys were attacking with a Jazz sensibility, but it was hard to convey and even harder to prove. I have no doubt he’ll come around in a few years. I played him the record and he dug it, so maybe he was just expecting Barry Harris during his first trip to the Vanguard.
Next couple of weeks are full of fun, Jason Moran/Geri Allen at 92Y, a masterclass with Ethan on the 24th, and an entire week of the one and only J-Master at Dizzy’s. I’m really glad, because I haven’t seen some really swinging stuff in a while, the way the cards have been falling. Can’t afford Keith at Carnegie; who the hell can???
Ellington Orchestra Member: “Strays, why are you always working on the road?”
Billy Strayhorn, holding the Rite of Spring: “Oh no, this isn’t business, it’s pleasure”