The Bad Plus and its CD "These Are the Vistas" made a lot of year-end 2003 best-of lists -- from the jazz press mainstays Down Beat and Jazz Times to Rolling Stone and The New Yorker. At the Regattabar Saturday night, Boston got its best live demonstration to date of what all the fuss has been about.
Simply put, pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson, and drummer David King have been exciting listeners everywhere by bringing rock 'n' roll attitude and a sense of humor to avant-garde jazz. They've been billed, tongue in cheek, as "the loudest piano trio ever," and they are best known for covering Top 40 rock by Blondie ("Heart of Glass") and Nirvana ("Smells Like Teen Spirit") on "These Are the Vistas." But their jazz chops are abundant, they interact as tightly and telepathically as any top-drawer trio, and their peculiar approach to fusing jazz and rock is entirely acoustic.
Saturday's first set was played to a standing-room-only crowd and included 10 tunes plus an encore. The group led off with a new Iverson piece called "Do Your Sums, Die Like a Dog, Play for Home," followed by Anderson's "Big Eater." King's "1979 Semi-Finalist" came next (his similarly titled "1972 Bronze Medalist" appears on "These Are The Vistas"), and, though adventurous, it felt downright languid in comparison to the frenetic free jazz of the first two.
"Heart of Glass" proved even more frenetic. Iverson carried the catchy melody with his right hand while his left hand joined his partners on bass and drums in running wild beneath it. King, especially, was putting so much body English into his playing on this one that he occasionally rose up off his stool.
Among the tunes that followed were a couple of new ones by King ("Layin' a Strip for the Higher-Self State Line" was particularly crowd-pleasing) and a cover of Ornette Coleman's "Street Woman," a version of which will appear on the band's next CD, "Give," due out in March.
The Bad Plus is a band of equals, but Anderson announced all the tunes, and he did so with charmingly droll wit. ("This next tune is called `Dirty Blonde.' It's about hair colors.") This extended to the way he announced that the band would be selling CDs and T-shirts between sets. "In addition to being aspiring musicians," he deadpanned, "we are also young entrepreneurs."
And so came the highly unusual sight of a line snaking its way toward the back of the Regattabar of folks seeking goods, autographs, and the chance to shake these guys' hands.
To paraphrase Jon Landau's famous proclamation regarding Bruce Springsteen and say, "I have seen the future of jazz and its name is the Bad Plus" would be a trifle over the top. But this most definitely is not your father's piano-bass-drums jazz trio.