Thursday, September 16, 2010

CD Review: Don’t Stop: The Bad Plus’ “Never Stop”

Originally published on Jazz Police.

A new CD by The Bad Plus is a new CD by The Bad Plus. You know right away, even if you haven’t seen the art or liner notes, that you’re not hearing anyone else. It’s as if this trio—Ethan Iverson on piano, Reid Anderson on bass, Dave King on drums—speaks the secret language of twins.  

After ten years together, TBP has a sound so distinct it should be trademarked, except no one could duplicate it. Which is not to say the group is predictable. Never Stop, just out on Sept. 14, has at least one feature few people would have foreseen: All ten tracks are originals. For a group that first gained national attention for covering Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” then reconfigured classic tunes by the Police, Tears for Fears, Rush, Black Sabbath, Queen, Neil Young, Radiohead, even Bobbie Vinton (their “Blue Velvet” with singer Wendy Lewis on the vinyl version of For All I Care is a killer), a cover-free CD comes as a surprise. 

I confess to not being completely surprised. When I spoke with Dave King in late 2008 about the band’s annual Christmas residency at the Dakota (scheduled this year for December 25-27), he mentioned that their next record (after For All I Care, which hadn’t yet been released) would be “all original instrumental recordings, no covers.”  

I wondered if I might be a little disappointed. To Bad Plus fans, anticipating what the band will cover next has long been part of the fun. But I’m ready to let that go, now that I’ve heard Never Stop

The new CD is smart, witty, serious, humorous, gentle, and fierce. The band has been workshopping the tunes for some time, and I’ve heard at least two live performances each of “My Friend Metatron,” “Beryl Loves to Dance,” and “Bill Hickman at Home.” In live shows, each was prefaced by a lovingly detailed and invariably absurd story told by Iverson with a poker face. (It’s interesting that Iverson is the person who does the talking for The Bad Plus. For Happy Apple, another of Dave King’s many bands, King is the spinner of tales. Does anyone know if Anderson ever takes that role?) 

There are no stories on the CD, so we won’t dwell on them here, though I’m tempted to dig them out of my notes and report on them elsewhere at length. Each painted a colorful picture of the song we were about to hear. For example, I’m pretty sure Iverson said something about Bill Hickman, the subject of “Bill Hickman at Home” and an actual person (he was a stunt driver in both Bullitt and The French Connection), buying a frozen dinner at a convenience store and eating it alone. Iverson’s words make Hickman seem like a lonely man, a misfit. As does his own piano playing on Never Stop. It sounds as if he’s playing a different piano entirely—an old upright with at least one key out of tune; a G, if I’m not mistaken. There’s a bluesy, barsy, sad and smoky feeling to this song which Iverson underscores by returning to that G again and again, lovingly if not a bit perversely.  

“Bill Hickman” is near the end of the CD. Let’s start at the beginning, with “The Radio Tower Has a Beating Heart.” You could name that as a Bad Plus tune in the first three notes, if you’ve heard one or two of their tunes in the past. The melody seems to glance in the direction of “Old Man River,” but only briefly. The opening is big and full, a wall of sound, with loud piano chords and thunder on the drums and thick, muscular bass notes. It’s a workout of a song. The last minute-thirty or so is a more subdued, repeated riff, simple and spacious. Just don’t try to dance to it or you’ll trip over your own feet. 

Photo by Cameron Wittig
 Anderson penned the title tune, “Never Stop,” and if you’ve been listening to much of The Bad Plus, you could name it as a Reid Anderson tune within the first ten seconds. It starts with the same note repeated on the piano, accompanied by the drum, then stays deceptively simple in construction while working itself into a frenzy. It’s all about forward motion, marching on. People are speculating that Never Stop is TBP promising to stay together and keep making music. 

I like this group’s longevity, their commitment to being a band, and the fact that they accept no substitutes. It’s Iverson, Anderson, and King or nothing. They all have other projects, but you don’t go to see TBP and find anyone on the bench but Iverson or at the drums but King or behind the bass but Anderson.

“You Are” is classic Bad Plus, tricky and showy, tight from the start. Everyone shines, especially King. “My Friend Metatron,” named after an archangel (I’m not making this up), is one of my favorite TBP tunes. From the first jabbing, assertive notes on bass and drums, it’s unpredictable, layered and dense. A charming little tune is tucked in twice.  

Both “People Like You” and “Snowball” are tender and beautiful tunes, the ballads of the bunch. At nine minutes fifteen seconds, “People” is the longest song on the CD but doesn’t feel that way. It’s an emotional journey and you want to go wherever it takes you. Like most (all?) of Anderson’s compositions, it builds in volume and intensity; Iverson’s piano goes from quietly pensive to glittering and grand. His classical training is written all over this piece. Then all grows quiet again and after being lifted up, we’re set down gently and tenderly. Nicely done. 

Coming after “People Like You,” “Beryl Loves to Dance” is almost too frenetic and giddy. The story Iverson tells for this tune is something about a young girl who dances alone in her room. At one point, the song explodes in crashing piano chords and machine-gun drumbeats. Beryl must be knocking pictures off her walls.  

“2 PM” sounds like three musicians who know each other very well, getting together and playing with no charts, no plans, no preconceived notions. They’re speaking the secret language of jazz.  
Following the bittersweet “Bill Hickman,” the CD ends with “Super America.” The gas station or the nation? Don’t ask, just clap along as if you were in church. The whole song is accompanied by clapping, which makes it feel like a gospel song. At the end, the clapping falls apart and fades away, and Anderson’s bass says amen. 


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