During a performance of “Neptune (The Planet)” last October at New York City’s Village Vanguard, Dave King of the Bad Plus set down his drumsticks, reached into his bag of tricks and pulled out a pair of cheap toy-store walkie-talkies. With the rest of the band in a tacet, King held the toys face-to-face, emitting a high-pitched feedback into his microphone. Just then, the A-train rumbled by underneath the club, arousing a low gurgle against the electronic whine. It was as if King cued it himself.
Perhaps the Bad Plus isn’t royalty in the jazz-purist sense, and that train could have just as easily been the C or E. But this jazz power trio still commands noise like no other. Give, their second album, portrays both their musicianship as trained players and their powerful sound, which can fill up a room better than a Marshall stack.
Give is a follow-up album in every sense of the term. It serves as a paternal twin to its predecessor, last year’s These Are the Vistas, an equally diverse album that brought the Bad Plus into the spotlight for fans of both rock and jazz. Give‘s opener, “1979 Semi-Finalist,” is a down-tempo sequel to Vistas‘ standout track, “1972 Bronze Medalist.” Both albums feature three covers, usually with a bend toward pop and loud rock. Most importantly, both albums manage to capture the energy and sheer power of the band, recorded live in the studio using only acoustic instruments and virtually no edits or overdubs.
The recordings achieve a sort of West Village jazz club intimacy; elements like King’s baby-rattle and walkie-talkie noodling are shown off proudly alongside Ethan Iverson’s chromatic piano runs. From a distance, you can hear how the band builds into cacophonous fits of white noise and immediately retreats into controlled jamming. But up close you might be able to make out the faint sound of an almost operatic voice singing along at the climax of the band’s take on the Pixies’ “Velouria.”
The other covers — Ornette Coleman’s experimental alto sax rumble “Street Woman” and Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” — round out an already solid album of diverse composition. These takes on old anti-standards stick out for their endearing and sometimes hilarious arrangements, but the various originals are even more moving. “Neptune (The Planet)” beckons the listener into the infinite realm of the cosmos; “Layin’ a Strip for the Higher-Self State Line” beckons the listener into the passenger seat of an eighteen-wheeler driven by Reid Anderson’s country-fried bass line.
While controversy in the jazz community still hums like walkie-talkie feedback, it is becoming clear that the Bad Plus is helping to steer jazz in a new direction. Though their experimentation and penchant for rock may sound strange to some ears, it seems the A-train and its generation of jazz standards is pulling away as the Bad Plus plays on.