[JPL] Taking Familiar Instrumentation to Unfamiliar Places

r durfee rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com
Fri Sep 15 18:36:02 EDT 2006

September 14, 2006
Music Review
Taking Familiar Instrumentation to Unfamiliar Places 
Jason Moran’s Bandwagon and the Bad Plus, both piano
trios, have scrambled jazz to suit themselves. They’re
sharing a double bill at the Blue Note this week, and
in Tuesday night’s opening set each band used about
the same amount of traditional swing rhythm: not much.

Instead there were backbeats, blues shuffles, chugging
figures in odd meters and hard, pulsating free rhythm.
But the spontaneity, the collective sound through
loose coordination, the breaks and plasticity of
groove — all this comes from nowhere else but jazz.

After the early 60’s, piano trios started to stake a
lot of the music’s outer levels on the bass. In older
swing and bebop models, sometimes you had to be a
musician to appreciate how much the bassist was
defining the sound. Not so here. With the Bad Plus,
which opened the show, Reid Anderson plays clear,
long, true notes on the bass, each note as big as the
room. (The sound system worked with him up to a point:
his lowest notes made the speakers rebel with
popcorn-machine noises.) His sound is like supersized
Charlie Haden, simple and strong, and his tune
“Giant,” a slowly gathering piece in a nine-beat
rhythm, grew inflated into dimensions that justified
the title.

The members of the Bad Plus are full-on jazz
obsessives; if you have doubts, check their blog,
which now includes a reader-assisted canon of the
great jazz records from what is perceived as the
music’s dark years, the early 70’s to the late 80’s.
It would be in character for them to cover tunes from
out-of-print, small-issue jazz records. But they go
the other way, putting pop-radio songs of their youth
into their repertory. 

You’ll know this is nothing new for jazz, if you’ve
ever heard George Coleman cover Roberta Flack and
Donny Hathaway’s “Where Is the Love.” But the Bad Plus
piles up these songs with gravity, as if each one were
Beethoven. The new ones in Tuesday’s set: the Bee
Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love,” with precise dissonant
harmonies jostling against booming consonance, and
Rush’s “Tom Sawyer,” which didn’t so much allow you to
hear the song in a new way as it pushed the geek meter
into the red. 

The Bandwagon has a unique bass sound too. Tarus
Mateen uses an acoustic-electric bass, and you’d
expect his notes to have a longer period of decay than
Mr. Anderson’s, with his acoustic upright instrument.
But it’s the opposite. 

Mr. Mateen plays stubby notes, sketching roughly all
over the instrument, as Charles Mingus did, and
chopping up the flow of the music. It can be
disconcerting at first, until you see that he has a
system, and that he functions within a larger system:
these slippery, lunging moments get the band going,
fuel them up for the tight ensemble passages to

As opposed to the Bad Plus, whose stop-start
arrangements can make a song seem in a constant state
of finishing, the Bandwagon’s sound swims along,
waxing and waning through elisions of its repertory,
growing abstruse and stretching to the limit of
coherence, then coming together into full
coordination. A lot of its set threaded blues melodies
together with Mr. Moran’s original lines, but its last
10 minutes were an imaginative tour that abandoned the
idea of hardened style. 

Mr. Moran started with a postmodern stride-piano piece
written by Jaki Byard; then the band thickened it into
four-four swing, which led into reprise of a blues
shuffle it had played earlier, and that led into a
trio piece based on speech rhythms, played along to a
recording of a woman speaking Italian. It was a whirl
of ideas, and they held together.

The double bill of Jason Moran and the Bandwagon and
the Bad Plus continues through Sunday at the Blue
Note, 131 West Third Street, Greenwich Village, (212)


Roy Durfee
P.O. Box 40219
Albuquerque, New Mexico 87196-0219
rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com

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