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Album Review: The Bad Plus – Made Possible

[Review by Joey Clay]

Originally made famous by their genre-bending jazz covers of classic rock and other contemporary favorites, The Bad Plus continue to chart a different course with their second album of all original material, Made Possible. The Minneapolis jazz power trio, demonstrates an emotive style of jazz music that truly became defined on their previous album, Never Stop. Usually, they are patient, dynamic, and thematic but also are known to delve into more frantic and less poised songs that border free-jazz. With many profound directions in the world of jazz already foraged through by their jazz forefathers, The Bad Plus are free to explore the realms of this comprehensive genre while leaving their own quirky imprint on the music. While listening to Made Possible, I found they made a few change-ups from their newfound modus operandi, some of which that work and others not quite making their mark.

The Bad Plus are masters of making a lot out of a little and I’ve noticed that they seem to enjoy developing a musical theme within a song — sometimes it’s only a lingering few notes or chords. Once a theme is established, the band is free to variate and elaborate upon it. The thematic elaboration is usually a given and is especially noticeable in the opening track, “Pound for Pound.” This song reminds me of a Vince Guaraldi outtake from the Peanuts soundtrack, who made music that sometimes could be the textbook definition of rainy day jazz music. “Pound for Pound” features beautiful elaboration on this particular theme from pianist Ethan Iverson. His beautiful accompaniment features angelic flourishes from his right hand as he keeps the theme a solid constant with his left hand. Iverson is usually instrumental (pun intended) to these thematic explorations but it is not limited to him either. In “Seven Minute Mind,” bassist Reid Anderson seizes the melody from Iverson and forms it into a bass solo. He teases and taunts the theme, opening the door to let it breathe then gleefully slamming it back shut in its face. The hybrid rock/hip hop drum beat in “Seven Minute Mind” is a choice inflection by drummer David King. He uses unique fills and meter changes that really spice the basic time signature up. King knows when to seize the reigns and when to relinquish control back to his band mates as he slinks back from the foreground. Save for the electronic drums sparsely featured here (and more on that later), King can easily depart from the original syntax of the song and still maintain the original integrity of the theme and feeling.

In contrast to the melodic and melancholy opener, we have “Re-elect That,” which is a loose song with no discernible theme in the first two thirds of the song. When I saw The Bad Plus perform at the Jazz Showcase last year, they covered free-jazz innovator Ornette Coleman’s “Street Woman.” The same sentiment is reflected in “Re-Elect That,” as it features an ever-changing tempo and meter that is regulated by an unpredictable loud/quiet range of sound. The band remains fluid and scathing at the same time, not quite sounding right in all their brilliant strangeitude. David King stays on top of the whole chaotic concoction with his drumming. Keeping time with impressive fills and staccato flair, King finally turns the tides of the song in his favor as he hammers down a very frenetic yet controlled drum solo. Unfortunately, the advent of any normalcy in the melody brings about one of the gripes I have with this album.

The final part of “Re-Elect That” features some sort of electric keyboard effect that just doesn’t gel right with the rest of the song. It feels very contrived and cheesy. They don’t even bother to build a full song around these new sounds for the band. In fact, all of the electronic effects seem like an afterthought; sort of just thrown in after the fact. The other big offender in the album are the electronic drums King utilizes in a few songs. They just seem to be a swath of 16th notes here and a couple of hits there in Songs like “Song for a Silver Dollar” and “Seven Minute Mind.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for the inclusion of electronic sounds within jazz music (or any music) but in “Made Possible,” they just felt plain distracting.

In “Never Stop” they featured a 9 minute epic called “People Like You.” It was absolutely breathtaking the first time I heard it. Sad, chilling and excrutiatingly slow at the beginning, this number forced you to hold on for the big payoff, and boy is it sweet. It is thematic Bad Plus at their best. When I saw a 14 minute song called “In Stitches” within the track listening of “Made Possible,” “People Like You” was the first thing I thought of. Could it be? Another carefully calculated tune that chills you and lifts your spirits at the same time? Well, to answer the question, “In Stitches” definitely has merit as ‘a long Bad Plus song.’ It is a very dynamic song that starts off incredibly slow, as David King’s brushes slowly tickle the skins of the snare drum. A chord arrives and fades into the background. The piano finally makes a permanent connection with the sound field as a melody is weaved. The tempo increases into slow methodical build up that peaks and punctuates the middle of the song. This is where “In Stitches” really takes off. Now as far as the rest of the song goes, well, I’m not going to describe the whole thing here. However, I will say that all of the ingredients are there to make “In Stitches” a rival to “People Like You.” It’s a much different animal, but I think that the wider spectrum of dynamics, colors, textures, tones, and interludes within the song makes it a more exciting and multifaceted
journey compared to “People Like You.”

Idiosyncratic as ever, The Bad Plus are truly talented musicians who like to progress. Frank Zappa once said, “Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.” And this couldn’t be more true in the case of The Bad Plus. In their last two albums they dropped all of their popular covers and focused on original material. News of this surprised and confounded fans and critics. This reception did not deter The Bad Plus as they hit a home run with Never Stop and drove the point even further home with Made Possible. Sure, I found certain additions to be less than ideal, but look past that and you have a band just starting to capitalize on their second wind in the world of jazz.

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About Frazier

Jeremy Frazier is the editor-in-chief of Soundfuse, an online magazine based in Chicago.