Album Review: The Bad Plus “Never Stop II”

 In Albums, Reviews

Minneapolis piano trio The Bad Plus have an improbable 17-year career, broadening Jazz’s audience like few others while remaining fresh and true to an original idiosyncratic template. Now a third of the band just quit, but they continue with Orrin Evans, in for pianist Ethan Iverson. What chance this can even work? The release of Never Stop II is an opportunity to find out.

Around the turn of the century Dirty Blonde by The Bad Plus caught my ear on BBC R3’s Late Junction, I caught them live at Kettle’s Yard and became an enthusiast for their virtuosity, thoughtful composition and deconstruction of popular song. They dragged my musical interest back to jazz again and -over a decade before Robert Glasper with Kendrick, Thundercat, Kamasi and chums arrived to take crossover to further heights -The Bad Plus seemed much the most vital thing in the blossoming-again genre. Jazz musicians are traditionally untroubled by the problems of long and successful careers but The Bad Plus have built a 12-album studio discography and enthusiastic following on the back of a powerhouse collaboration between bassist Reid Anderson, pianist Ethan Iverson and drummer Dave King. Their distinct collective personality (brand if you must) has helped keep both themselves and followers alike interested and engaged throughout.

The trio format, optimised for musical potential and player visibility, like three-legged stools, is prone to instability. One weak element, the whole thing falls over. Be it Marx Brothers or The Jimi Hendrix Experience, central charismatic figures usually take the structural load and ‘the other two’, no matter how talented, deemed supporting cast only. Democratic trios are rare and short-lived (Cream and The Andrews Sisters spring to mind -but only the latter hung around for any while). TBP has always seemed a mature democracy with all three members contributing composition and collaborating externally. The departing Iverson’s interests always looked broadest though: in his blog Do The Math he writes with unusual depth and clarity on music and literature, and amongst numerous side projects he has long-term working relationships with the Billy Hart Quartet and the Mark Morris Dance Group (the latter predating TBP). Iverson’s prints are all over TBP’s cover / music video of Milton Babbit’s Semi-Simple Variations. His exit is a big deal for The Bad Plus. A difficult and risky decision to replace this particular leg of the stool, rather than redesign the furniture -or to simply throw in the towel.

Absent entirely on Never Stop II are The Bad Plus’ trademark ambitious comment-magnet covers. Covering a great song is a risk, success shrugs off the original’s cultural baggage / performance handicaps, to uncover the truth of the song, but equally you might take apart an Aston Martin and end up with a clown car and a pile of spare parts. TBP covers are no mere chord sequence skeletons to structure soloing and always go further -deconstruction, rethinking and reassembly occur before a note is played. From Stravinsky and Smells Like Teen Spirit to Barry Manilow and Milton Babbit, TBP have a better-than-you’d-expect success rate. Their Flim opened my ears to The Aphex Twin, but I cannot quite shake Manilow cheese memories from their Mandy (a good cover of a great song from 2016’s It’s Hard). My lactose intolerance, my loss. Surely then a deliberate and smart choice here to eschew controversial cover activity for continuity and a sequel to 2000’s originals-only collection Never Stop. Never Stop II reminds the listener that, though their album-titling imagination may falter, their playing and compositional inventiveness is undimmed.

Now the tracks: the strong opener Hurricane Birds (great title) features a sparse melody and strong imagery: an approaching threat; anxiety / alarm; call / response; struggle / soaring.

All present and correct on this album are the usual TBP bells and whistles clamouring for your attention: obtuse arrangements and tricksy time signatures, swerving changes and dynamics from tender to murderous, elements of classical, rock and prog, aggression and intensity, and occasional romantic-cheesy flourishes. Antsy rock rhythms propel Trace to a typically-TBP non-sequitur of a conclusion and Lean in the Archway is another of their go-with-it-or-go-home post-bop statements. These tracks shouldn’t work, but such is the quality of the players that they somehow take all of this stuff and still make it swing. Thrilling excursions, not your dinner party jazz.

I am surprised that no TBP music has never been retooled for TV. A piano melody doubled with one of Dave King’s toy pianos leads Boffadem toward the 1970s and musical territory not a million miles from John Barry’s The Persuaders. The urgency of Safe Passage recalls Anthem for the Earnest from 2005’s Suspicious Activity? (both these tunes could be successfully edited and repurposed as fine satirical news programme themes).

Music is a communication art. Jazz often loses its audience by clinging like grim death to seriousness, but not The Bad Plus. I don’t recognise the characterisation of the band as ‘ironists’, but I do enjoy the bone-dry wit that informs their work, through song titles (like the Bush era The Empire Strikes Backwards and Cheney Piñata) through to elements in their playing and composition. Prime example on this album would be 1983 Regional All-Star, a further instalment in Dave King’s sporting pathos suite, following 1972 Bronze Medalist (These Are the Vistas, 2003), 1979 Semi-Finalist (Give, 2004) and 1980 World Champion (Prog, 2006).

There are slices of straight-up, straight ahead music here too with no tongues anywhere near cheeks and the band’s ADHD firmly in check. Dave King stays with brushes on Salvages—an uncharacteristically even–tempered tune built over an insistent bass riff—and Kerosene, a really beautiful, sparse melody framed with consistent economy and restraint throughout.

The album closes as it opens with drama. Seams begins as a stately, faintly baroque piano piece, but continues as a deleted scene from West Side Story in which a distant cousin of Somewhere is intimidated, harassed, lured to a deserted car park and progressively beaten up as Anderson’s bass attempts mediation between King’s belligerent percussion and a mortally wounded melody.

Never Stop II is an exercise in continuity with The Bad Plus’ heritage, and while none of their albums can hope for the impact of their early recordings, the quality is good and the hallmarks of the brand endure. As good an album and as seamless a transition for the reconfigured band as one can imagine. To the casual UK bystander Orrin Evans is an unknown quantity and remains so here, partially hidden amongst familiar TBP scenery, though hints of a comparatively warmer, more organic quality to his soloing are glimpsed. What is very clear is that he fits the band like a glove. Another 17 years seems unlikely, but on this evidence The Bad Plus 2.0 is in good health following its radical transplant, its members likely to remain expert practitioners of the improbable for a while yet.

Jonathan Miller

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