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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Jazz in the Park Kicks Off With The Bad Plus

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Jazz in the Park kicks off its 20th anniversary season at Cathedral Square on Thursday, June 3, with one of the concert series’ more exciting headliners, the New York City avant-garde piano trio The Bad Plus.

The Bad Plus thrashed its way into the jazz limelight after its 2003 debut on Columbia Records, These Are the Vistas, which featured deconstructed interpretations of non-jazz songs, like Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” and Aphex Twin’s “Flim,” alongside original material that found a middle ground between traditional jazz, highbrow classical and hard-hitting rock ’n’ roll.

But don’t get the wrong idea; these aren’t the kind of jazz covers you’d hear at the supermarket.

“We’re very much against hijacking this music and ‘jazzifying’ it,” says Bad Plus drummer Dave King. “That’s the one thing we’ve always stood against: the jazz cover-version of a rock tune. We’ve taken a lot of shit for not using jazz harmony, as if we don’t know jazz harmony, which is ludicrous. We just don’t think that things are going to sound better when you put a flat-five, sharp-blah-blah chord on it.”

And yes, The Bad Plus has taken a fair amount of shit in the wake of their three Columbia releases. Bill Milkowski, one of the genre’s most distinguished critics and documentarians, sought to “bury” the group in one article, jabbing at King in particular for playing “so little so loud.” The pan evokes a chuckle from the drummer.

“Anyone that’s seen us knows we’re a very dynamic band,” King says. “Milkowski didn’t even know who The Pixies were, so I can’t justify a music critic’s opinion who doesn’t know The Pixies.”

For the most part the praising and panning died down after Columbia dropped the band following its 2005 release Suspicious Activity?. They’ve since released two records on indie labels, and are expecting a new release in September, an all-originals LP titled Never Stop.King says the choice for an all-originals record is a celebration of the band’s 10 years together.

“There’s more of a classic jazz sound to the record,” King says. “It doesn’t have the rock production we’ve had working with Tchad Blake [Black Keys, Pearl Jam] and Tony Platt [AC/DC, Iron Maiden]; not that we ever did shit that sounds like Radiohead, but for us, putting a little something on anything was something we embraced.”

Because after all, The Bad Plus is an acoustic jazz trio making a living in the jazz Mecca that is New York City. But as King points out, the concept of a working jazz band—a unit of musicians that creates and tours under a shared name—is somewhat of an anomaly in jazz these days. The fact that all three members of the band are each virtuoso musicians in their own right but collaborating democratically is something that sets them apart from other groups.

“To be honest with you, I’m more disappointed than inspired,” King says about the landscape of modern jazz. “New York used to house all these great working jazz bands. And now with how much it costs to live and how splintered everything is, it’s like people are just reading charts on gigs. I mean, flat-out, if you get a band like the Jason Moran and the Bandwagon or The Bad Plus on a festival date, and you get a bunch of people who are great instrumentalists that are reading charts, doing whatever, we will destroy you.”

Which is something that gets to the heart of The Bad Plus sound, something that’s simultaneously composed and improvised, both loose and tight at any given moment while powerfully dynamic throughout. It’s the thing that allows them to hover around the point where Vivaldi meets Monk meets Cobain, the thing that makes the band distinct and indispensable.

“We’ve been around 10 years and lived through the Columbia hype,” King says. “We never said we were reinventing jazz, but we know what we’ve done, which is a unique thing in improvised music, and we’ll continue doing that. And that’s not an ego position, that’s literally a fact. We did it punk-rock style, and we’re still doing it that way.”

Jazz in the Park runs from 6 to 9 p.m. every Thursday through Sept. 23 at Cathedral Square Park.