The Bad Plus 11.8.17


Star Theater
Portland, OR

Words by James Sissler
Photos by Coleman Schwartz Media


Portland's jazz fans filled the Star Theater Wednesday night for a soul-stirring performance by the ever impressive Bad Plus. Both the upper and lower levels of the small theater overflowed and the walkways were lined with people by the nine o'clock advertised showtime. It was impossible to move through the crowd without saying, "Excuse me," and patrons were lucky to find a spot large enough to stand alone, much less with a friend. It felt as if the band was too big for the venue, or that the show had been oversold. Luckily their music is more for listening than for dancing anyway, since no one on the floor had much room to move.

The crowd was a little older than a normal Star Theater audience, and because it was a weeknight, a lot of attendants were still dressed in their office attire, giving the event a slightly formal atmosphere. This is not unusual for the band, who have played in larger, seated venues when they have come to town in the past, but it was unique for the Star Theater, which tends to attract younger crowds and rarely hosts jazz performances.

People were beginning to show some agitation by showtime because of the crowded conditions, but the mood in the room was quickly elevated when PDX Jazz Vice President and Reed College Professor Pancho Savery, stepped onto the stage to introduce the band. After acknowledging the event's sponsors, including PDX Jazz and Portland's renowned jazz station, KMHD, the emcee announced to the audience that they were about to witness the band's final performance in Portland with all three original members. As bassist Reid Anderson explained, this is because the group's pianist, Ethan Iverson, will be pursuing other projects while the Bad Plus continues on with pianist Orrin Evans. This announcement took the crowd by surprise, and it likely contributed to the intensity with which they savored the performance and showed their appreciation for the band.

The crowd was elated when the band took the stage and launched into their first tune of the night. Stillness overcame the audience as everyone’s attention was consumed by the trio of piano, bass, and drums. Known for their technically complex yet viscerally moving compositions and expert improvisation, the Bad Plus combines the unique voices of jazz virtuosos Ethan Iverson (piano), Reid Anderson (bass), and Dave King (drums) into a cohesive musical unit that has produced some of the best jazz recordings of the twenty first century. The three musicians share an undeniable chemistry on stage, and although each contributes their own compositions, their sound is very consistent and easily identifiable.

With a balance of natural groove and complicated time signatures, a huge dynamic range, and lots of unexpected twists and turns, their music covers the entire emotional spectrum, from the harmonically rich and sweet, to the most far out, raging dissonance. Their performances blur the line between composition and improvisation just as their songs somehow bridge the gap between avant-garde and popular music. In fact, their latest album, It’s Hard, features eleven creative interpretations of hits like Johnny Cash’s “Walk the Line” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.” The group has long been known for performing such covers, imbuing each with all the best qualities of a Bad Plus original while drawing heavily from their classic versions, and they are often high points of the show, perhaps because of the peculiar way in which they mix the familiar with the strange and unexpected.

One of the most refreshing attributes of the Bad Plus is that despite their esteemed position in the jazz world, they refuse to take themselves too seriously. Throughout the show, their deep and exhaustive sonic explorations are punctuated by humorous stage banter from bassist Reid Anderson. He introduced “Time After Time” with a riff on how society has collectively decided that mint toothpaste is so good that no other flavors should exist, for instance, adding that coconut might be a good one, and he commented before the song “Dirty Blonde” that it was “named after one of the all-time greatest hair colors.” The band’s sense of humor can also be seen in song titles like “The Umpire Strikes Backward” and “Neptune (The Planet),” and in Dave King’s series of hilarious instructional videos called “Rational Funk.” This humorous side keeps the mood light at their performances and shows the band members to be grounded and relatable people—and of course it is very entertaining.

The audience’s attention was rapt from the beginning of the show till the end. Hardly anyone moved or spoke, even between songs, because they were all so captivated by the band’s performance. The setlist included covers of Ornette Coleman's “Broken Shadows” and “Mandy” by Scott English and Richard Kerr (and made famous by Barry Manilow), as well as Bad Plus originals like “Gold Prisms Incorporated,” which was a crowd favorite, and “Pound for Pound,” which closed the show. After that, the band returned to the stage and played a cover of Black Sabbath's “Iron Man” for the encore, but the crowd wasn’t done yet. They demanded a second encore and the band obliged with another cover, this time of “Walk the Line” by Johnny Cash. About half the crowd still refused to move after the double encore, leading the band to come out once again, but rather than play a third encore, they took a triumphant bow and bid the audience goodnight.

The crowd seemed satiated to the point of euphoria as they spilled out of the venue and onto the street. It might not have been the most comfortable concert experience, but it was more than worth it. Every Bad Plus show is unforgettable, and the fact that it was the last time the three original members would perform together in Portland made the night extra special. Ethan Iverson will continue to perform with the group until the end of the year. If you have the chance to see them, you absolutely should not miss the opportunity. It’s hard to imagine that the new lineup will be as incredible as the original trio, but who knows, maybe it will be even better.

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www.thebadplus.com

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