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In 14 years together as a group, rhythms get to be familiar. This thematically was what I was getting at in the preview piece I wrote for the San Antonio Current of The Bad Plus’ show last night at San Antonio’s Aztec Theater. There’s a sense of familiarity in the rhythm, a knowledge of direction. When I asked them how they do what they do, for example, in Reid Anderson’s composition, “Physical Cities” off 2007′s Prog (a song the trio unfortunately didn’t play last night, something just a tad too complicated and a little too far back in their catalog to perform with the level of precision these guys are proud to demonstrate in every show), while I expected some sort of breakdown of specific counting, a lesson of polyrhythms that couldn’t possibly have been conveyed to such a tender-minded admirer in the span of time of the tail end of a dinner break, Iverson jokingly answered they did so through telepathy. One might over 14 years of playing together and building such a body of work, most recently with Inevitable Western on the Sony-OKeh label, seriously consider that as a possibility.
Their performance put on by the Arts San Antonio organization as the close of their 2013-2014 season (today, October 1, being the new fiscal year, caps off the first day of the 2014-2015 season) was the first time The Bad Plus, the genre-expanding trio of pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson, and percussionist Dave King had ever played in San Antonio. This show is actually nestled in the middle of a tour of southern U.S. cities that the trio had never had the chance to play before. There was certainly the hope that this crowd would show up and show out. There were a lot of hopes involved here. This performance was one of the first in the newly renovated Aztec Theater, a historic, Egyptian-themed former movie theater built in 1926 in downtown San Antonio alongside a cluster other equally ornately-designed theaters, including the Majestic (built in ’29) and the Empire (built in ’19), both just a block away. Various endeavors intertwined with the effort to bring back nightlife to downtown San Antonio have been enmeshed with the Aztec’s running. After being shut for so many months after a few rather sigh-inducing endeavors at other season-long nightly shows, a new booking agent has stepped up to the plate and filled the 1,600-capacity venue (with standing cocktail tables) with acts like Broken Bells and Switchfoot with Arts San Antonio sidling in and integrating its potpourri season with the venue. As tour dates opened up for TBP and this slot just so happened to be in the Aztec’s newly-made schedule, it seemed like serendipity all around, and quite the eye-opener at that. Quite rarely do so many natives to a city say “Y’know, I’ve never even been here before?” Such a show like this, bringing out the city’s familiar jazz crowd (and the region’s jazzbros who show up specifically for shows like this; who knew San Antonio even had them?) shows promise that maybe the city can keep supporting shows like this, and maybe former mayor (now U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary) Julian Castro’s “decade of downtown” is still on track. A nearly full Aztec Theater is definitely a good sign of that.
Understanding the brilliance of what this trio is doing in a live setting and in their recorded work involves understanding what can happen when already brilliant, creative people have been working together for an ongoing length of time. In the original compositions on their latest album, Inevitable Western, it makes sense for the initiated to say it’s “another Bad Plus album”. It sounds naturally like what Iverson, Anderson, and King would write, work out over time, and play. Their solos are in familiar places, individually and simultaneously. Polyrhythms and irregular time rear their heads. Remembering the intricacy of these compositions is a feat, most certainly, but knowing intuitively where each musician is rhythmically is part of the job. I’m not saying it’s not difficult, but as it relates specifically to these guys, it’s not not difficult (at least not entirely).
Thus, whether discussing the new group of songs the trio have put together on Inevitable Western or their performance last night in San Antonio, there isn’t that large a distinction to make. It would be akin to comparing an invigorating, evening drive home on clear streets in a Honda Civic with a drag race in the same car outfitted for the same purpose. You’re still going fast, perhaps just as seamlessly maneuvering. However, the objective of the drive is altered somewhat, even if it’s still just as fun. For songs like “Gold Prism Incorporated”, it’s a marvel what these guys are pulling off. It’s not just that they can free improvise like this, it’s that they can do so simultaneously in these intricate polyrhythms that flow relentlessly throughout the piece. On “Do It Again”, things get jangly, and Iverson’s right hand went crazy on the far end of the Steinway imported from Austin. On “Self Serve”, one goes through the evening’s constant reminder that it’s just hard to keep your eyes off King on the drums, though Iverson building up his playing to a quick stand-up flourish as a capper isn’t worth missing, either. Speaking about the group compositionally or performatively are so closely related that it’s practically impossible to try to separate the two.
Essentially, this trio not only sounds great together on every recording they’ve ever released (though some albums are admittedly stronger than others), but they’re just as brilliant live. One simply cannot look at this group and separate their recorded work from their live performances because the rhythm that flows between them is part and parcel of the band themselves. Each members’ very countenances leans into this rhythm. In a moment earlier in the evening as Iverson and King were speaking with those organizing the show and determining how to handle selling merch up front, both Iverson and King sorted through the issues, and closed the point almost absentmindedly, in a nature that would only come from them, stated in unison, “We need to sell stuff” (and judging from the line for autographs at the end of the night, there were many fans, the veterans and the newcomers alike, who definitely unloaded some of those copies of Inevitable Western, The Rite of Spring, and 2012′s Made Possible from these dudes when all was said and done). Even in their off moments, their rhythm and timing is unassailable. Whether it’s on a show, on an album, or just hanging with these these guys, The Bad Plus have reached heights in their collaborative rapport that far surpasses a jazz band. TBP is a state of being.
The Bad Plus continue their tour through the South before making their way back to the Northeast before heading to Japan and then Europe throughout November. Check out their upcoming tour dates.
01 Baton Rouge, LA — The Listening Room
02 Little Rock, AR — South on Main
04 Fayetteville, AR — Starr Theater
05 Atlanta, GA — Variety Playhouse
18 Durham, NC — Duke University
23 New York, NY — NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts
24 Ithaca, NY — The Hangar Theater
25 Wilmington, DE — World Cafe Live
26 Vienna, VA — Barns at Wolf Trap
30 Tokyo, JAP — Cotton Club
01 Tokyo, JAP — Cotton Club
02 Tokyo JAP — Cotton Club
07 Hertogenbosch, NDL — Verkadefabriek
08 Hertogenbosch, NDL — Verkadefabriek
09 Mannheim, DEU — Alte Feuerwache gGmbH
10 Zurich, CHE — Moods
11 Middelburg, NDL — Schuttershofcafe
12 Odense, DNK — Jazzhus Dexter
13 Oslo, NOR — Nasjonal Jazzscene, Victoria
14 Gothenburg, SWE — Nefertiti
15 Hasselt, BEL — cc Hsselt
16 Amsterdam, NDL — Bimhuis
17 London, UK — London Jazz Festival
18 Toulouse, FRA — Salle Nougaro
20 Zagreb, HRV — ZKM, Zagreb Youth Theatre
22 Gdasnk, POL — Polska Filharmonia Baltycka Gdansk
Nextbop @ Art of Cool editor Anthony Dean-Harris hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio and is also a contributing writer to DownBeat Magazine. You should follow him on Twitter.