Jazz is always the most unpredictable and spontaneous of art forms. This transatlantic musical collaboration between America’s premier postmodern jazz trio and Europe’s quirkiest pianist and composer presented even more questions than usual. How would the unusual quartet featuring two pianos work? How would the musicians create and sustain their own space? Would Django Bates play his tenor horn? Would it be a performance of prepared music or unprepared free improvisation? Would it provide a fitting end to The Bad Plus’ prestigious residency at Kings Place?
In the end, the performance transpired to be an intense blast of freely improvised music, with no interval. Sometimes the results were inspired and refreshing but they were also on occasions frustrating. The Bad Plus have a longstanding admiration for Django Bates, and the common ground between the two acts arguably lies in their provocative nature and ability to divide opinion. For every person besotted with The Bad Plus’ irreverent deconstruction of piano trio performance, there’s another person who despises their interpretations of contemporary pop music from the likes of Nirvana and Aphex Twin. Many admire Django Bates for his undoubted skill in composition and arrangement (especially for his work with Loose Tubes), but others cannot abide his quirky humour and whimsical approach to performance and presentation.
There were some fine moments in this concert, many of them characterised by idiosyncratic humour as much as by technical skill. The second improvisation was particularly impressive – beginning with Bates creating a world of unusual clicks and rustles from his synthesiser and laptop, and with pianist Ethan Iverson making percussive noises from his piano stool. The Bad Plus are brilliantly responsive and empathetic musicians, adept at creating varied textures and moods. The improvisations often gradually expanded before unfolding into righteous, relentless grooves.
Drummer Dave King, with his bulky and tattooed frame about as far removed from any stereotypes of a jazz musician as it’s possible to get, demonstrated his mischievous streak. He created a whole tapestry of sounds from the shells of his drums and by using his hands and fingers on the skins. He played an immersive, fascinating, richly nuanced solo and created a constant sheet of supportive sound that was impressive as much for its propulsive effect on the other musicians as for its dexterity. Bassist Reid Anderson also impressed, providing a solid rhythmic and harmonic basis for even the wildest of Bates’ flights of fancy.
Bates, dressed as usual in his peculiar wooly hat, jeans turned up to reveal comedy socks, was characteristically restless. He seemed tetchy, switching rapidly between different patches and sounds on his synth, sometimes singing through a sort of vocoder, and sometimes reaching for his tenor horn. Inevitably, he often dominated the improvising – his personal style an unstoppable barrage of notes with little recourse to conventional melodic or motivic improvising techniques. There were times when Ethan Iverson appeared to be striving for something more lyrical and focused, only to be pushed aside in favour of more supremely confident, insistent flourishes from Bates, sometimes using the most intrusive of his vast palette of synth sounds. When all four musicians were on the same page, the music was articulate and exciting but some tender moments were cast aside almost as soon as they had begun. A duet between Iverson on piano and Bates on tenor horn could have developed into something spacious but affecting but was very quickly curtailed.
The Bad Plus have become as famous in the jazz community for their self-mocking but insightful blogging as for their music. This residency has offered a timely reminder that there is definitely still life in their unusual music. The collaboration with Bates was clearly one of mutual respect, perhaps designed to push the group to their most frenetic extremes. It’s great that jazz, so often unfairly dismissed as a cerebral or pretentious form, should present us with two acts who so deftly combine humour and depth. Yet there were times when a little more breathing space would have been appreciated. A freely improvised set may not be the best context for the manifold talents of these two extraordinary acts.