Over the years, watching the Bad Plus perform has consistently left me breathless. I don’t use that term as a lazy platitude to describe my astonishment at their virtuosity. I mean, I literally hold my breath. On the one hand, yes, the acoustic jazz trio is jaw-dropping, face-melting, hair-raising, gob-smacking. . . but when the doors close on a concert hall where Ethan Iverson, Reid Anderson and David King are performing, it’s as if the space is vacuum-sealed and the relaxed threesome onstage are the only ones equipped with oxygen.
Jazz is, as a genre, close-listening music, but the Bad Plus demand this attention as the price of entry. Breathe too deeply, shuffle your jacket too abruptly, nod your head too vigorously to the parts that rock (and rock they do), and suddenly your cough, zip, chair creek becomes a rogue piece of the composition. The principle was well-illustrated late in the band’s set, during the outro to a newer abstract vehicle called “Adopted Highway.” Drummer King shaved his groove back to the most minimal nubbin of rhythm, such that the entire pulse rested upon the squeak of his palm pressing the head of his floor tom. Before the theme returned, he brought a toy megaphone to the same skin, producing a faint, if ominous, hiss that would have been inaudible without the crowd’s collective attention.
Over a decade and eight records, the band have earned this through a fairly contradictory approach. Gone are the days of cheeky Nirvana and David Bowie covers, but the band can still drive a racecar of a tune like “Dirty Blonde” or “1972 Bronze Medalist” like the prog and punk bands they grew up on. Their audience has learned to trust the death-defying turns of their compositional sense and have only followed it deeper into the unlikely and unpredictable terrain of their more-recent original-heavy records. And, despite the increasingly serious calliber of their improvisations, they’ve retained a deadly ironic sense of humor. Bassist Anderson deadpanned his way through several interstitial monologes, force-cringing his bandmates with elliptical riffs about Olympic weight lifting and the pleasure of restaurant buffets—even an extemporaneous lounge love song about the CDs for sale in the lobby.
Angular, adventurous originals like “Pound for Pound,” “Wolf Out” and “Re-Elect That” were drawn from the band’s newish album Made Possible, while other highlights included the airy 9/8 “Giant,” playful “Thrift Store Jewelry” and encore “Big Eater.”