New Year’s Eve was an end for many things; and so it was for The Bad Plus.
After 17 years, pianist Ethan Iverson was set to leave the celebrated trio, and the Dec. 31 performance, before a sold-out crowd at New York’s Village Vanguard, was his swan song.
The audience was buzzing.
Departures like Iverson’s are never easy. And whatever salve might have been provided by the news of a promising replacement—pianist Orrin Evans will, as of January, join bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King—had yet to penetrate the crowd’s consciousness. Rather, the concern was more immediate: How would Iverson’s prospective move affect the show?
The answer, if anything, was a positive one.
Amid the flow of good cheer and finger food—the latter a rarity for the famously foodless Vanguard—the three musicians were operating at full tilt, making a case for their legacy as one of the millennium’s first, and most salient, innovators of the piano-bass-drums format.
The evening offered two full sets: the first, a deep dive into original repertoire; the second, an amalgam of originals that seamlessly segued into a series of covers. Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” all unfolded in rapid succession and generated a rousing response.
Covers are what first brought the band to the attention of an audience outside the jazz realm, and the decision to end the evening with them suggested a tacit recognition of that fact. At the same time, the evening’s unique circumstance—the final bow of an iconic band as it is currently constituted—compelled a holistic evaluation of the group’s oeuvre.
As the evening progressed, a powerful through-line emerged. Whether reimagining others’ compositions or interpreting their own, the band’s operating assumptions did not waver. They trafficked in a kind of creative deconstruction, with the elements of sound—as much as any specific organization of notes—the subject of their excavations.
Anderson’s allusions to space, and the sonic uses to which it could be put, took center stage in tunes like his spare and fragile “Neptune (The Planet),” a free-floating ode to, among other things, the heavenly body. The piece—which appeared on both 2004’s Give (Columbia) and Anderson’s 2000 quartet album The Vastness Of Space (Fresh Sounds/New Talent)—generated a counterpoint so evanescent that it nearly dissolved into the ether.
Space, likewise, was at issue in Anderson’s “Silence Is The Question.” A long crescendo built on a repeated three-chord figure, the tune’s churn grew so dense that seemingly nothing could escape from inside it. In its execution, the piece—from the band’s first major-label release, 2003’s These Are The Vistas (Columbia)—engendered a growling intensity undiminished by time.
King, a stylistically adept drummer, capable of summoning a hyperkinetic swirl of polyrhythms at the drop of a hi-hat, is, in his compositional approach, no less subtle than Anderson. But, on this night, his subject was not space as much as time and was reflected in the wistfulness of anthemic elegies to past glories like his “1979 Semi-Finalist,” from Give, and “Epistolary Echoes,” from 2014’s Inevitable Western (OKeh).
Iverson, meanwhile, remained the enigmatic figure. Given by turns to pounding the keys into submission and seducing them with delicacy, he nonetheless spent plenty of time traversing a middle ground—conjuring constantly shifting lines, common chords and blunt clusters that moved with alacrity in and around centers of tonality, rhythm and emotion.
One animating subject was politics. His “Cheney’s Piñata,” a Latin-inflected swipe at the former vice president from Give, made the playlist along with “Re-Elect That,” an episodic work of indeterminate target, from 2012’s Made Possible (eOne/Universal/Do the Math). In it, the pianist’s engaging syntheses, embodied in a cadenza that marked him for the moment as a kind of prog-Rachmaninoff, brought smiles to holiday revelers’ faces.
Despite—or, perhaps, because of—Iverson’s impending departure, the group’s sense of fun seemed intact. As the clock wound down to midnight, Iverson invoked the tick-tock of the countdown theme on the TV quiz show Jeopardy. At midnight, sporting party hats, the group accompanied the singing of “Auld Lang Syne.”
The gesture, obligatory as it might have been, shone a spotlight on the commonality of voice that arises from the sharing of a musical life. Whatever had led Iverson to feel his statement with The Bad Plus had been made, Anderson, who held the microphone during the show, chose to stress the positive.
“We’ve traveled the world and played thousands of concerts,” he told the audience. “And we’ve touched people with our music. We’ve been through so many things—deaths and births and marriages and divorces. Life has been very real. And we’ve taken care of this music over the years together in this band. The Bad Plus changed our lives.”
After announcing that the band would play one more song and noting the poignancy of the moment, he added: “We’ve certainly made some of the best music we’ll ever make in our lives together in this band. We’ve been bound together by what we’ve created and now we let go.”
With that, he offered Iverson thanks from himself and King.
Iverson then launched into “Iron Man” with a Satie-like intro that quickly yielded to a lower-register rendering of the tune’s signature riff. That, in turn, heralded a collective percussive roar, courtesy of the full band, with a two-fisted Iverson leading the way. Serving up an acoustic analog of doom metal, his playing was mind-blowing.
But it raised a question: Was Iverson’s final statement with the band to be one of fury? In a word, no. At the close of the tune—when, after the band has suddenly downshifted into lyrical mode, Iverson is accustomed to attacking the bass clef in one last roiling flourish—he instead offered a telling surprise: a Picardy third, a final shift to a major key.
A minor change, perhaps, but one suggesting hope for the new year. DB