The Bad Plus, recently morphed into a quartet, performs at Keystone Korner in Baltimore on Feb. 23, 2023. (Photo by Casey Vock)
Some projects are simply too good to be stopped, even if the name might suggest otherwise.
The Bad Plus came into being on a bit of a whim, and the extolled experimental jazz band from the Upper Midwest has been through a few permutations in its day. But with its current lineup and the release last fall of the band’s fifteenth studio album, the group has again redefined itself and at the same time managed to renew its place as one of the leading improvisational outfits making music today.
Now a four-piece unit, The Bad Plus visited Keystone Korner in the Charm City the night of Feb. 23 for what was a delectable pair of sets to showcase a new look and sound by way of morphing from a trio to a quartet over the course of the past couple years.
Stream The Bad Plus’ newest studio album, The Bad Plus., via Spotify:
Still featuring bass player Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King, two of The Bad Plus’ founders, the group has added alto saxophonist Chris Speed and guitarist Ben Monder. But as both Anderson and Reid have expressed in interviews in the past year, the decision to grow the band was done with care and the goal of not just keeping the essence of The Bad Plus alive but thriving it.
The quartet is playing a series of shows extending into the spring to promote the new album, The Bad Plus., which is self-titled like the band’s premiere but with the additional punctuation is a subtle and clever signal of the group’s new era.
And so last Thursday was a night to be celebrated, and Keystone Korner proprietor Todd Barkan emphasized that point in his introduction before the start of the first set. The venue’s tables and booths were packed with dining onlookers who cheered upon hearing his words:
“One of the most wonderful bands in the world, and we’re thrilled and honored to get them here: The Bad Plus.”
Playing mostly tracks from the new record, with just a couple culled from earlier in catalogue, it was a set that would have made immediate fans of anyone new to the group and certainly would have convinced any longtime followers that The Bad Plus has yet again found a pathway and gained the momentum to continue pioneering ultramodern jazz.
“Motivations II” from the new album started the night, and this pensive and roving piece offered the chance early in the set to hear the natural cojoining of the guitar and saxophone to the existing balance that Reid and Dave embraced more than 20 years ago in forming the band with original pianist Ethan Iverson.
“Anthem For The Earnest” is a single released in December in the wake of the latest album and bearing similar digital artwork, but it’s also a new take on a track that originally appeared on The Bad Plus’ 2005 album Suspicious Activity?
The second song at Keystone Korner, it was an avowal of the group’s evolution as a limitless test of its own abilities — where a change in personnel might just provide the opportunity to recolor and recharacterize some of its most impressive compositions.
This gratifying number was inquisitive, becoming more adventurous as it moved along a call-and-response pattern and each of the four instruments somehow were positioned to be dramatically pivotal to the melody as it widened and developed contours spanning from The Bad Plus’ previous recorded material. As it became more hectic, Speed — who stood at the front of the group — sounded off, and Keystone Korner saw its patrons enamored.
Take a look a look behind the scenes of the new album by The Bad Plus with commentary by band founders Reid Anderson and Dave King via Edition Music’s YouTube channel:
“Stygian Pools,” mysterious at its start, advanced on Speed’s directive to allure and intoxicate, becoming one of the most provocative segments of the night.
The band members were businesslike but comfortable during the presentation. Anderson and King, with a sense of dry humor that levels off their intrepid music, would entertain with the slightest expressions, with Dave becoming particularly feisty during intense sequences.
Performing intricate and thunderous original compositions, the group conveyed intellectual nourishment and showed itself to be marvelously cohesive, as Speed’s and Monder’s previous collaborations with Anderson and King clearly benefit the endeavor.
“Sun Wall” was indeed a shimmering surface, and much like on the album, both Speed and Monder dazzled in this illuminating and ambitious creation.
Poking fun at the name his friend gave to the tune, Anderson introduced King’s “Sick Fire” and told the room: “it’s about a fire … that was totally sick.”
Chuckle snorts from the dinner tables put smiles on each band member’s face — this is a group that has exhibited patience and playfulness in whatever form it’s taken, stemming from its origins as an experiment itself. But the reward for Anderson’s and King’s perseverance has been a place of high regard in the minds of not just jazz fans, but anyone who appreciates experimental of improvisational music.
Revisit The Bad Plus’ first studio album, released back in 2000, via Spotify:
The explosive and billowing flames of “Sick Fire” saw King fiery-eyed, pounding, unrelenting, all seemingly precise in how it was fit into the chaotic flow. Anderson’s “You Are” was another look and listen at the band attacking a composition that had previously flourished with the help of Iverson’s brilliant work on the piano. In Baltimore last week, Speed and Monder customized this piece with a renewed texture, bringing out its bustling, “existential” quality, and, here, Reid was at his most nimble and his notes extraordinarily detailed.
“Thank you for coming to see us tonight,” Anderson said, in all seriousness. “This is our first time at Keystone Korner.”
He introduced the final song of the set, “The Dandy,” but this name, too, drew a cackle from the table right in front of him.
“Yeah, there’s a whole ‘dandy” scene out there,” Reid seized the chance. “Baltimore’s famous for it. … It’s more of an attitude than anything. … But you’ve got to have the right accessories.”
If they hadn’t already at some point in the past 23 years, attendees absolutely fell for The Bad Plus, and the final song, which featured Speed on the clarinet, was another curious submission that seemed to seek corners to explore and turns to take, resulting in an otherworldly semblance that twisted and ultimately wound down the set with delicacy.
“Take care of the music and the music will take care of you,” Barkan reminded the room.
As patrons finished up their meals and sipped on beverages, Barkan pointed out that a few tickets for the second set remained, and within no time a line had formed by those looking to enjoy more time with this enterprising and influential group of musicians.
Anthem for the Earnest
Here are images of The Bad Plus performing at Keystone Korner in Baltimore the night of Feb. 23, 2023. All photos copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.