Jazz without Borders: Uncategorizable jazz graces Mandel Hall

The Bad Plus (courtesy of the artists)

There will be great changes on the stage of Mandel Hall Friday night. Songs will move across different moods, rhythms, time signatures, and keys, traversing centuries-wide gaps between musical traditions. The Bad Plus is coming to play. The jazz trio of pianist Ethan Iverson, drummer Dave King, and upright bass player Reid Anderson, has made a name for itself as one of the most exciting groups in jazz today. The music is innovative, melodic, accessible, and difficult to classify, which is exactly how the group likes it.

Despite its roots in jazz tradition, the group’s influences reach well beyond the average musician’s repertoire. Their last album, “For All I Care,” was recorded with vocalist Wendy Lewis and covers tunes by prog-rock icons Pink Floyd, folk-rock band Heart, Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, and Nashville songwriter Roger Miller. Bassist Anderson says their cover of David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” is a personal favorite, and the group’s 2003 cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” earned them early acclaim from critics and listeners. The Bad Plus’ border-breaching approach to music has even provoked efforts to invent a genre in which it would fit; “Nu Jazz” and “avant-progressive-jazz-rock” are among the attempts. But Anderson doesn’t sound worried about the group’s ambiguous position in modern music. “Our goal is to be ourselves and make good music, not to carry the flag for some idea of what jazz is supposed to be,” he says.

Exactly what the Bad Plus means by “good music” has to be heard to be understood. King’s drumming is astonishing; he moves from sparse, hip-hop inflected rhythms to dense, frenetic jazz fills with such grace that it sounds as if there were no distinction between the styles he bridges. Anderson’s bass plays off of King’s rhythms and laces them beautifully into the chord progressions. Iverson’s affinity for the classical tradition is apparent in the precise, rolling arpeggios he often uses to carry the diverse melodies. As a group, the trio’s musical exchange can move from quiet, subtle moments that accentuate the individual instruments, to swells of sound and rhythm so vast and heavy that it’s hard to believe there are only three bodies supporting them.

Anderson doesn’t hesitate when asked about the inspirations behind this effort to push at the boundaries of musical convention. “Ornette Coleman. Also John Coltrane, [Keith] Jarrett, [Charlie] Hayden, even [Miles] Davis. We see ourselves as well within the jazz tradition… we’re passionate improvisers.” But he adds, “We don’t want to toe the line for some particular philosophy or style… Anyone who has done anything significant is going to be controversial.” The group has drawn its share of criticism, especially from critics in the more conservative corners of jazz. “It’s been said that we can’t play our instruments,” Anderson laughs. “We can, in fact, play our instruments.”

King, Iverson, and Anderson played together once in 1990, but they didn’t become the Bad Plus until a session in 2000 had such powerful chemistry that they decided to book recording sessions. The group’s original sound is at least partly due to their stylistic diversity: each member of the trio has a distinct style, and all of them play in other groups. “Throughout the history of the band we’ve been very democratic, [and] we all write music with the group,” says Anderson.

In March, the Bad Plus will enter the studio to record a ninth album, this one comprised of all original material. But, regardless of how you classify it, the best way to listen to the group’s constantly changing sound is still in a live setting like that of this Friday night’s show.

“Our music is always made with the intention of inclusiveness,” says Anderson. “Our music can be complex and loud, and it can also be very simple…but it’s always made with the idea of letting the listener be a part of it.”
Mandel Hall, 1131 E. 57th St. February 5. Friday, 7:30pm. $25/10 students. (773)702-8068. music.uchicago.edu