It’s no exaggeration to say The Bad Plus – drummer Dave King, bassist Reid Anderson, and pianist Ethan Iverson – are the primary gateway drug to jazz for music fans of my generation. For a generation previous, guitarist Bill Frisell is on a similar very short list. They come to the Lincoln under the auspices of the Wexner Center on Sunday, October 8 (tickets here) in an exciting program revisiting Frisell’s classic first quartet and first decade. More information on the show including audio and videos below the jump.
The collaboration of Bill Frisell and The Bad Plus played only once prior to this short tour – which takes them through Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center, Urbana, and a week at NYC’s storied Village Vanguard – at the Newport Jazz Festival in tribute to legendary drummer (and collaborator of Frisell and Iverson) Paul Motian. Audio of that set is available here.
These artists have long, fruitful histories with the Wexner Center. The Bad Plus first played the space in 2002 before their major label debut that broke them nationally. They’ve returned every couple years since. In many ways, they epitomize the magic the Wexner Center brings to a town our size. The key that unlocked that magic was Chuck Helm’s curatorial eye, exposing them before mainstream accolades but also providing space and air for them to grow before our eyes.
One of the reasons The Bad Plus served as such a strong bridge for my generation, especially “rock” fans, is their commitment to a band ethos. No substitutions and no sheet music on the bandstand, breaking with what has become jazz orthodoxy out of necessity. In a fascinating interview on clarinetist Jeremiah Cymerman’s 5049 podcast (essential listening for anyone looking to get under the hood of new music), pianist Ethan Iverson declared, “Dave King was more hip to the idea of the collective which comes more from rock than jazz. But the John Coltrane Quartet needs Jimmy Garrison, McCoy Tyner, and Elvin Jones. And I think somehow that group could have stayed together longer if that could have been acknowledged.
There’s been a flood of press about their first lineup change, replacing Iverson with one of the great jazz pianists of their shared generation, Orrin Evans. The definitive article on this is Nate Chinen for WBGO. It’s marked by the candor, humor and self-awareness that made their music so rich and invigorating.
The Bad Plus got much of their attention for expanding the jazz repertoire into more contemporary rock songs without making those – “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, “Iron Man”, “Tom Sawyer” – feel like parlor tricks or a sop to an “uncultured” audience. But over time, their own writing came to be recognized for its freshness, sticky hooks, and hairpin turns.
The other side of the band, and their searching intelligence comes in a radical devotion to repertoire almost no one else is doing. Their work with peer Joshua Redman that came to the Wexner Center last year was a dazzling show that pinballed between room-quaking rhythms and delicacy that made everyone in that room lean in and made us more aware of one another. They’ve delved deep into Ornette Coleman’s Science Fiction record and I saw a performance of a wildly rearranged version of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring that sent me onto a Knoxville street babbling and wanting to hug everyone. This final appearance with the original three at the Wexner Center is deep in that second strain.
This final appearance with the original three at the Wexner Center is deep in that second strain. Bill Frisell has an even longer association with Helm, booked at the Walker back to the ’80s and first appearing here with John Zorn’s Torture Garden project in 1991. Frisell brought his own quartet to the Wex in ’93. Frisell’s returned repeatedly with his own kaleidoscopic collaborations and projects from his recent gorgeous appearance with sax legend Charles Lloyd to his California-infused sextet Big Sur to a tribute to classic country artists Jimmy Bryant and Speedy West (with pedal steel player Greg Leisz) the Disfarmer project (in tribute to the photographer) to his collaboration with filmmaker Bill Morrison (which the Wex commissioned). This appearance pays tribute to that very first, classic quartet – Kermit Driscoll, Hank Roberts, Joey Baron.
Former employer The Walker commissioned a wide-ranging in-depth interview between Helm and Frisell. Every word in the interview is worth reading. In that interview, Helm says, “Back in that era, that decade of ’85 to ’95, you were really developing that voice as a composer for ensemble. A lot of it was around that early classic quartet of you, Hank Roberts (who you’re playing with now), Kermit [Driscoll], and Joey Baron on drums. In that period, you were really coalescing that compositional voice for ensemble writing, and I think that ensemble approach in many ways lends itself to a project like this, where now different musicians and different instrumental voices can come around these tunes because it’s open to that.”
About this current collaboration, Frisell commented in the same interview, “Dave sent me this huge list—from my very first albums through up into the nineties. There’s a lot of stuff. I was like, “Oh, my god.” Luckily, I have all the written music stashed away somewhere, so I dug all that up. Some of it I’m like, “Wow, how did I even play this?” I have to really do some homework to get it together. There is this thing about looking back: I keep finding things that I didn’t realize at the time, things I didn’t fully understand or I didn’t learn. I keep seeing more in things in the past that I didn’t see the first time. There’s that, but then my hope is that it helps me go into the future.
What’s exciting about this is not trying to recreate something that I did before. It’s a chance to look at what’s there, and hopefully it’ll point some way into the future, or I can find something new within this stuff. You’re looking both ways at the same time.”
There’s a sweet symmetry in this band doing this repertoire, making Sunday’s concert a shining jewel in the last season Helm booked before handing the reins to new curator Lane Czaplinski.
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