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[REVIEW] The Bad Plus at Royce Auditorium

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The Bad Plus will wrap up the December leg of their tour at the Village Vanguard.

The Bad Plus will wrap up the December leg of their tour at the Village Vanguard. /Cameron Wittig

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The Bad Plus: New Release

The December 2 concert at Royce Auditorium featured tunes from the new release, Never Stop.  From their website : "NEVER STOP is the first album by The Bad Plus to consist entirely of originals. Recorded in Minnesota with a live, stripped-down sound, NEVER STOP showcases the band's range as well as its three distinct personalities. From gentle and melodic to fierce and abstract, from swing to 80's techno, NEVER STOP is tied together by a group sound that embraces diversity as strength. Ten years in, The Bad Plus is here to stay."

The avant-garde trio The Bad Plus (Ethan Iverson, piano; Reid Anderson, bass; Dave King, drums) opened their set at St. Cecilia's Royce Auditorium Thursday night with Igor Stravinsky’s “Apollo” and encored to enthusiastic ovation with the jazz standard “Have you Met Miss Jones?” In between was an artful collection of mostly originals—brightly polished pieces that stretch the imagination and challenge our harmonic expectations of jazz and improvised music. I didn’t hear a blues scale or a generic two-five-one chord progression all night. Indeed, this avant-garde trio has attracted the ears of many listeners still unfamiliar with mainstream jazz, and the intense, angular sounds of the evening surprised no one.

The group’s artistic achievement was on display in every piece, and yet the performance itself was strained by acoustic issues. First off, the nine-foot Steinway on stage had the lid on the short stick and microphones stuck in the sound holes of the piano. The piano, in other words, was miked for a windy outdoor concert not for the cavernous, quiet, volumes of Royce Auditorium. When I see microphones stuck in sound holes, I assume the “sound man” is a rocker unfamiliar with acoustic music—much less the acoustic breadth and depth of a large Steinway—or that the musicians are worried more about their sound monitors than the musical experience of the hall. Musicians of this caliber should be ready to adjust their dynamics to the acoustic givens. Fred Hersch, one of Ethan Iverson’s most notable teachers, would certainly have instructed him to make some adjustments for the acoustic space as Hersch himself explained to a student group he workshoped in a hollow hall at UICA a few years ago.

The evening’s early selections—“Apollo,” “The Empire Strikes Backwards,” “You Are”—were overcome with percussion and bass, eclipsing the piano’s beautiful over tones and wide-mouthed resonance. Instead, this electric setup gave us something more like an e-piano thinness (at low volume). This loss to the ensemble was tragic as we discovered (by contrast) in several later tunes when drums dropped out and we heard the fuller range of the piano played with gorgeous technique, touch, and concern. Had Iverson simply lifted the lid and pulled back the mikes from the sound holes to capture the quality of wood and a thousand delicate overtones, we would have heard a much different concert. But an acoustic set up requires trusting the band to play with dynamics fitting the place and trusting the room to represent the acoustic nature of the music.

Most of Thursday evening’s tunes were from their 2010 release, Never Stop: “The Radio Tower Has a Beating Heart,” “Never Stop,” “You Are,” “Snowball,” “2P.M.” and “Bill Hickman at Home.” Drummer Dave King was dominant throughout the performance, beginning with wispy, angelic dynamics on “Apollo” through to the final crashing syncopation of “Miss Jones.” And what we discovered in what was perhaps the highlight of the evening—a cover of Aphex Twin’s “Flim”—is that the compelling force of this ensemble lies in its classical arrangements, not in flights of adventurous solo improvisation. One doesn’t hear these guys stretch out in solos on their recording sessions either. Instead, we are given tightly constructed, intricately woven arrangements with parts in place and with deliberate trajectories. It’s at once refreshing and disappointing. But the music of The Bad Plus is the cubist avant-garde fusion of jazz, rock, pop, and electronica. We have to set aside expectations when approaching a group like this—and listen with openness and fascination.

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It's interesting to me that the musicians were miked at all. I thought venues like St. Cecelia were designed for accoustic performances? Perhaps that is naive.  Good review!