The Bad Plus, Live @ The Village Vanguard

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Everything about the night said “jazz”; as the rain fell effortlessly, I could smell the dust settling into moist gutters as neon and LED took over where the sun left off, fueling Manhattan’s insomnia. As I stood outside The Village Vanguard next to my friend who had graced me with a spare ticket, I did not know what I was about to walk into. I was to soon discover that the era of New York City jazz was not closed up and long gone; instead, the jazz scene has returned home to roost in the bowels of the city, and there, a culture long removed from the spotlight of popular music, jazz was alive and evolving, mirroring the ever-changing currents of the city fastened between the Hudson and the East River. When the doors finally opened, the bouncer ushered us down a narrow flight of stairs from street-level to a cozy subterranean lair packed with cocktail tables and stools. The theme was evocative of jazz’s prohibition era image, with dim lights illuminating the red, carpeted stage, upon which was simply arranged a grand piano, a double bass, and a drumset. I took my seat at the edge of the stage and looked back out upon the audience to see a room filled with faces of all ages and inclinations, united in anticipation of sounds and ideas that will bring them all closer to the nature of consciousness itself.

As Reid Anderson, Ethan Iverson, and David King approached the bass, piano, and drums, respectively, to form The Bad Plus, the crowd preemptively roared with applause. When the room settled, the magic began.

As each player, beginning with the drummer, joined into a distinctly live version of their song “I Hear You”, a sensitive, melodic, and evocative tune off the most recent album Inevitable Western, the audience settled into their seats, readying themselves for the whirlwind of unpredictable music to follow. The song moved from a sweet softness into moments of smoky, bittersweetness, and returned to its initial theme while increasing in intensity and passion until the band was roaring upon the small stage. The song ended in a spacious, inconclusive release, and applause didn’t come until the players unhunched themselves from over their instruments, giving the crowd permission to finally let out a trapped breath and praise.

The next song was a complete turnaround from the previous, and the band immediately jumped into a pointed, anxious, and frantic movement. At times, the band would instantaneously change the pace of the song, introducing new motifs in complex time signatures, before returning to the original theme, and proceed to revolve between the two. The song was clearly orchestrated and developed with attention to detail and precision, and this revealed itself in the cohesion of the group throughout complex changes; yet, nothing I was seeing was prepackaged, as glances between performers, and passing licks filled with sparks of improvised genius, revealed the spontaneous nature of the performance itself. The delicate balance struck between freestyle performance and music with form and structure was a defining characteristic of the group, a trait that sets them apart from the jazz masses, and this was one of the many nuances of The Bad Plus that I came to notice and appreciate over the course of their two hour set.

The show was more than just musically titillating; however, the artists themselves were having fun, as evidenced by their playing, and that carried over to the audience. Just as many in the crowd were tapping their feet or nodding their heads, the players on stage were moving in every way, climbing and reaching up and down the neck of the bass, fingers crawling up and down the piano. Every so often, after a snazzy lick or exchange between himself and another player, David (drums) would smile and let out this little shout in what could only be pure, childlike joy, just as the audience would clap and shriek after every phenomenal solo or breakdown. Reid (bass) would introduce songs, and his stage persona was as dryly sweet and deftly humorous as his bass playing was at times. I presume that the recurring punk-rock style theme that the bass and drums would break into for a few measures every song was, as expressed by their presence and message on stage, just there to shock you a little, to make life feel alive.

Rarely has a live music event had such a profound impact on the way I perceive music, and understand its role in my life, as the show The Bad Plus put on live the December 30th of 2015 as a part of an annual four-night New Year’s Eve concert series at the Village Vanguard in New York City. I’ll finish by imploring the reader: don’t let music lose its powers of enchantment in this generic age; let yourself be wowed by a melody no matter where it come from, and let it carry you away. Now you’re feelin’ the groove; that’s jazz.

Image via coveralia.com.