One band that I’ve really been taking a liking to over the past year or so would be The Bad Plus, the jazz trio that has officially crossed-over into territory that few piano jazz trios could ever hope for. Little did I know that these guys could have been on my radar well before Bonnaroo 2004, the first year they played the festival and the one year I attended and unfortunately missed most of everything that I wanted to see. No, these guys came into my life much later when I befriended a fan of theirs that passed along a little background on the them and what they’re all about. It was then that my fascination with their music started, and I got to satisfy that curiosity again by catching them for the second time ever here in San Francisco last Thursday.
The show was held at the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, an auditorium nestled right before the road across the Golden Gate Bridge begins. I arrived on time to see The Bad Plus only, which was unfortunate given that I had hoped to catch part of the opening set by Doctor 3. I got in to the venue with my choice of perimeter seats, so I had no problem just taking a seat as quickly as possible to focus in on the trio’s performance, one that had just started minutes before.
For an hour, the band lead us through a variety of originals, covers and classic jazz pieces that I would not have recognized without being told what it was, with most of the hour being just painstakingly jaw-dropping. I’m calling it painful, too, because at times my cheeks hurt from smiling while my eyes and ears strained to pick up every little piece of music that the trio’s drummer, David King, lays down. The whole band together has a serious skill to read a room, especially given how frequently their performances range from almost silent to fully bombastic. Every silent moment was greeted with a mute audience, and every explosive moment or solo was returned with thunderous applause (for jazz standards). They even got a laugh or two when they busted out Neil Young “Heart of Gold,” although it’s well documented that it’s not in parody but in homage that they choose to cover these songs.
As I mentioned, they played a variety of wonderful jazz pieces that I should have written down to be able to experience them again. They also played a bunch of their “originals” or recorded songs, including “Thriftstore Jewelry,” a hyper-extended “Giant” with a stretched out bass solo to lead into the song, and a set-closing “Life on Mars,” the David Bowie cover they included on their last album, Prog. The slow buildup of the song allowed me ample time to daydream and laugh a bit to myself remembering the Flights of the Conchords video for “Bowie,” definitely my favorite ridiculous moment from their first season/album. The whole set was just tremendous and it really featured all three of the members playing in top form (as always).
As I am quite a fan of the art of drumming, watching David King in action is a true joy. He plays the kit as if he is actually talking to it. He’ll start a beat, make a change, then grin like crazy. He’ll lift his head into the air and away from his kit sorta taken aback by whatever joy he suddenly experienced. Seriously, it’s like his drumset told him the funniest joke he had ever heard in his life after he made that change. And he continues this for most of the up-tempo and faster, more intricate work he does on the drum kit. When he’s not creating lots of noise and making inside jokes with his drumset, he’s passionately and metaphorically stroking, licking, and fingering his drum kit to produce little grunts and groans of sounds here and there, only meant to accentuate the silence of the band and not take it over. It’s awesome to see live, and while the albums do show his prowess on the instrument, a lot of his subtlety needs to be seen to be fully recognized.
In truth, I think the same thing could be said for each member of the trio, although it’s probably best explained by someone more experienced in the other band members’ respective crafts.
They’re definitely a jazz trio; there’s really no mistaking that. But they’ve incorporated some elements of rock, funk, pop, and folk into their live sets by selecting choice covers from their past — songs like Blondie “Heart of Glass,” Rush “Tom Sawyer,” or Black Sabbath “Iron Man” have all been covered at one point live or on an album — so these guys seem to be attracting some attention there and getting audiences to cross over into the world of live jazz. I know I’ve effectively crossed-over, at least I feel as I have when I get to one of their shows. Definitely a great band to see live now while you can, and definitely go with a truly open mind about the music and what you’d expect to see live from these guys. You’ll probably hear something you didn’t expect, and you’ll probably come away from their performance with a large smile on your face. The crowd was buzzing outside after the show, and that’s always a good sign.