For more than three years, the Bad Plus has been bringing a rock ‘n’ roll mindset to the jazz piano trio format, playing music that broods, grinds and strives for a consistent intensity. Its signature is a booming bottom end that is rarely, if ever, heard in jazz, and its 75-minute set at the Knitting Factory emphasized ferocious bass ‘n’ drum teamwork with which pianist Ethan Iverson either plays along or glides delicately over to provide a textural counterpoint. As jazz divisions search for acts that can bring them rock and pop listeners — Norah Jones; Medeski, Martin and Wood; Jamie Cullum; Ozomatli, etc. — the Bad Plus is one of the best concepts yet.
Band, currently touring on its second Columbia disc “Give,” is a shock to the system, in repertoire and attack. It brings in material from the Pixies, Black Sabbath, Aphex Twin and Blondie that seems inappropriate for a jazz take and then banks on familiarity, plus improvising skills and a sense of a drama. Intriguingly, Sabbath’s “Iron Man” closed the evening, and it was neither the heaviest nor the darkest number of the night. “Heart of Glass,” on the other hand, was stripped of most of its dance appeal, its melody given the treatment of a 1950s saloon song.
The covers never feel like a cute or commercial stab. A lot of jazz acts in the rock era have tried to open new doors and gotten it wrong, whether tackling Andrew Lloyd Webber, Carole King or the Beatles, usually with little attention to swing. Jazz is in desperate need of bands like the Bad Plus whose secret is in the approach: For too long, the idea of combining pop or rock with jazz has meant electric instruments and a back beat. When Bad Plus’ originals invoke the spirits and writing of Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman, it’s clear a solid jazz nerve is being tapped.
Band, bred in Minnesota and Wisconsin, runs the risk of being a cerebral rocker’s fave. Iverson is a fine pianist, who has backed choreographer Mark Morris and released his own, more introspective recording on tiny labels such as New Sounds. The danger is to play it too safe and be the same every night — that’s a rock tradition that won’t float in jazz.