The Bad Plus has figured out how to detour around the cul-de-sac into which traditional jazz piano trios have locked themselves. In doing so, they have gone back to the philosophy of Miles Davis in his electric period — taking what they need from rock, blowing off the rest and steering their own strange, uncompromising route toward something genuinely different. And rather than play at one of the usual “jazz” spots in L.A., the Bad Plus settled in at the venerable, rock-oriented Mint on Pico Boulevard before an overwhelmingly young, standing, whooping aud.
After putting out a trio of albums for Columbia, whose jazz activities seem to be withering away, the Bad Plus released their latest album, “Prog,” last week on Heads Up Intl., which is expanding out of its smooth-jazz niche. “Prog” continues the Bad Plus pattern of quirky but carefully structured originals mixed with rock covers and even a reverent interpretation of Burt Bacharach’s “This Guy’s in Love With You.”
The trio astutely plugged some tunes from “Prog” during a good deal of its first set Tuesday night — not forgetting to include a rumbling, complex piece of work that bears the fortuitous title “Mint.” Yet they lifted off the set in challenging fashion with a new piece by drummer David King called “Blue Candy,” which opened with a jumble of wild atonal bombast and closed with the simplest of piano passages accompanied by tinkling percussion. They like oddball endings, whether abrupt cutoffs or gentle outros that deflate all of the furies that preceded them.
For someone addicted to big chordal onslaughts, Ethan Iverson has a surprisingly light touch on the acoustic grand piano. He doesn’t pound even when the sound is supposed to be heavy, and he isn’t afraid to pare down his playing to the sparest number of notes. Reid Anderson’s bass plays the usual role of lower-end anchor, taking the lead with his two-note motif on “Science.”
Yet it is the heavyweight drumming of King — a John Bonham in jazz clothing — that defines this band and probably attracts the most flak from the jazz police. At times, his exuberant assaults could overwhelm his colleagues — even with amplification on the piano and bass — in this small room. Luckily, King also has a subtle sense of color, merely shaking the brushes to generate the pulse on “Science,” and he could change textures at the blink of an eye and generate a rollicking groove on “Anthem for the Earnest.”
The Bad Plus continues to refuse to operate like a normal piano trio — and jazz, which is dangerously headed on a path to the museum, ought to be thankful for that.