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The ethos of Jaco Pastorius’ composition “Punk Jazz” was embodied by acoustic trio The Bad Plus from 2000 to 2017, as bassist Reid Anderson, drummer Dave King and since-departed pianist Ethan Iverson mixed adventurous originals with creative covers of Nirvana, David Bowie and Radiohead. But since Orrin Evans replaced Iverson on 2018’s Never Stop II, the new pianist's 25-year career as an avant-garde leader and sideman has taken the trio in new directions. The trend continues on the new Activate Infinity.
A noticeable difference from the Iverson era is that the new disc is the second consecutive release featuring all-original material, something The Bad Plus had never done before. What hasn’t changed is the democratic nature among the group’s three composers. Anderson’s opening “Avail” is a brief study in contrasts between Evans’ sparse chords and King’s percolating drumming. The bassist ties them together, as he does on his subsequent “Slow Reactors,” a minimalist downshift that approximates chamber jazz via the restraint of Evans and King — all as Anderson’s rolling bassline provides the unifying pulse.
King’s ever-playful compositions include “Thrift Store Jewelry,” a vehicle for Evans’ soloing and comping amid the drummer’s cacophony of tom-tom thunder and Latin-inspired rim shots; and “Dovetail Nicely,” on which he and Anderson alternately churn and relax to accommodate Evans’ classically inspired punctuations. The pianist’s back-to-back contributions are literally centerpieces of the eight-song disc. On “The Red Door,” Evans leads the rhythm section through a multi-tiered, improv-heavy romp, while his ballad “Looking Into Your Eyes” features a gorgeous melody for Anderson and King to sparsely underscore.
The raucous “Undersea Reflection” and the ballad-to-boiling opus “Love Is the Answer” also showcase Evans’ gifts for melody and use of space. It will be interesting to see what The Bad Plus ever chooses to cover with him. If anything.— Bill Meredith
Featured photo by Christopher Kayfield.