Review Summary: The Bad Plus, 1980 World Champions.
The Bad Plus is a jazz trio hailing from Minnesota, consisting of pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson, and drummer Dave King. Prog is the group’s fifth and most recent studio album. The group’s sound is so immense and draws from so many sources that it’s difficult to describe. They take the complex theory and spontaneity of jazz and match it with the sheer power of rock and the accessibility of pop then throw in a dash of avant-garde for good measure. They also are known for their great covers of popular songs, and Prog is no exception.
The great thing about the Bad Plus is that their songwriting and musicianship skills are both on equal planes of excellence. The band is extremely skilled at their respective instruments. Drummer Dave King can play complex rhythms, yet he knows when to lay back. Bassist Reid Anderson, can lay down a bass line that propels a tune forward and throw in some tasty licks. Pianist Ethan Iverson has excellent improvisational ideas and can comp for himself to boot.
All three members also compose for the group, lending three unique yet coherent styles on the same album. Iverson’s compositions are probably the least accessible and most complex. In Mint, Iverson begins with a deceptively dirty blues lick, yet soon introduces the winding and complex main theme. (It should be noted that this is his only composition on the album and you dig it, look into previous albums for more of his stuff).
The bassist, Reid Anderson, on the other hand crafts very melodic and earthy tunes. Giant fades in with a bass line you’ll have stuck in your head for weeks. The tune features variations on this great line along with simple yet effective drum work and amazing piano melodies. Overall it’s an excellent song you can chill out too, creating a nice intermission in the middle of the album. This isn’t to say Anderson is one-dimensional; in Physical Cities, the band grooves and builds up to an extremely long and syncopated unison 8th and 16th note section, which recurs throughout the piece. This rhythmic pattern is not only played in unison, but King solos over it, as does Iverson twice, using dissonant tone clusters and comping the complex rhythm at the same time. The World is the Same is a bit of a departure for Anderson, as it’s an extremely down-tempo ballad that progresses slowly. The tune seems easy to overlook at first, but the immense peaks and valleys in the dynamics will undoubtedly draw you in and the free improv ideas between the ensemble will keep you interested.
Last but certainly not least of the group is drummer Dave King. King’s pieces simply groove and amaze you. Thriftstore Jewelry’s head is strangely catchy, featuring a bouncy melody and alternating tempo feels. King then later takes an extended solo which will impress even the most cynical of drum set gurus. Even though the tune is straight, he swings part of his solo and it just feels so right. 1980 World Champion ends the album on an extremely upbeat note. The Bad Plus goes all out with this one, with an insanely catchy main theme, tambourines, hand claps, and some of the tastiest piano licks you’ll hear. It has an epic melodic section and an extremely fun almost ragtime like section that will get anyone with a pulse going.
As if this wasn’t enough, the group does some great covers on Prog as well. The album opens with Everybody Wants to Rule the World (originally by Tears for Fears), a tune which the group slowed down and completely romanticized. Life on Mars features the original string parts from the Bowie version and is by all means epic. They even put a great spin on the Bacharach tune This Guy’s in Love with You by crafting an excellent arrangement with contrasting dynamics. The Bad Plus also cover the infamous Rush tune Tom Sawyer. The arrangement stays fairly true to the original, although when Anderson gets the melody on bass its tasty as can be. Iverson goes absolutely nuts where the guitar solo would be, effectively taking the piss out of the tune a bit.
There are really only a few drawbacks to Prog, if you can call them that. Iverson himself only has one tune on the album, so fans of his style may be upset by his underrepresentation. Also, listeners who aren’t very turned on to jazz or avant-garde may be offput by the core Bad Plus sound. At the same time, however, this is a great album for casual fans of the former genres because it also features very accessible elements. The Bad Plus have crafted a unique and powerful genre-melding sound that is definitely worth checking out.
- Incredible musicianship and technical skill from every member
- Interesting spins on famous tunes
- Three different composers with contrasting styles
- Great combination of jazz, rock, and pop
- May be too jazzy or avant-garde for some
- Iverson only has one tune on the album