Improv in Music: The Bad Plus Plays Neptune

[Photo courtesy of The Bad Plus’ Official Website]

If you’re not paying attention, avant-garde jazz can spin your head on its axis. It renders your brain susceptible to one of the only types of vertigo that results from music. It presents itself to the inattentive listener as a cacophony, composed of multiple perfectly talented musicians, who should be on a more similar page.

But if you’re paying attention, avant-garde jazz begins to make sense.

On Thursday, January 19th, I took a long and strenuous journey on the number 49 bus to the University District to see the avant-garde jazz trio, The Bad Plus, perform at the Neptune Theatre. The Bad Plus is a Minneapolis-based group, comprised of bassist Reid Anderson, drummer Dave King, and pianist Ethan Iverson. All of their instruments were absolutely beautiful. King’s drum-set effervesced and reflected stage lights like a disco ball. Iverson’s keys were in the form of an enormous grand piano, which dominated the stage. Anderson’s stand-up bass was tall and commanding. All of these possessed unique personalities that you do not usually see in inanimate objects.

The music that came from these three was interesting. It seemed at first like the drummer, the bassist, and the pianist were all playing incredible music, drawing on melodies and rhythms that were complex and wildly elaborative…but, separately. They didn’t seem to be on the same page, musically. They seemed to be playing three different songs.

But that’s because I wasn’t paying enough attention.

Somewhere toward the middle of The Bad Plus’ set, I had an “Oh!” moment, where I began to comprehend the complexity of their genre. Upon taking the time and brain capacity to contemplatively listen, it became apparent that, although their notes weren’t exactly with each other, their improvisational skills allowed the group to move dynamically and dramatically as one unit, fluidly and fastidiously transferring leadership of a motif from one instrument to the other, and then to the other. It became clear that paying attention is what allowed this music to transform from cacophony to composition.

These compositions painted optical pictures. Dependent on whether a song’s key was major or minor, on whether the pace was fast, moderate, or slow, and on how quickly or subtly the dynamic changed from piano to forte, mental images could appear to the listener to complement the accompanying sound. At one point, during a long jam, the group’s pace became quick, the volume soft, and the key minor, as if the listener had to run from something. My +1 leaned over in her chair and whispered, “I see a lizard walking on an adobe wall.” And after hearing that, it was so easy to visualize, that we ended up sharing the visuals we created after each song.

A high point for me was Dave King’s drum solo toward the end of the set. I hadn’t seen a solid drum solo in a while. Also, I didn’t realize how much I appreciate solid drum solos until I experienced Dave King’s. If anything proved the talent of this musician, it was this.

Overall, The Bad Plus created music at The Neptune last Thursday that was mentally stimulating, and extremely impressive when one realizes that it was created as a unit, mostly by improvisation. All I had to do was pay attention.


JASON MCCUE | Breakfast Cereal Connoisseur | KXSU Promotions Director

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