Since forming in 2000, the Bad Plus have grown from upstart into institution, one of the few contemporary jazz acts to show up on the mainstream radar in the years before the To Pimp a Butterfly watershed. The trio’s early buzz centered on their sometimes radically reworked covers of rock and pop standards (from “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to “Heart of Glass” and “Iron Man”), but from the beginning, their real greatness shone through in the members’ own compositions. In that respect 2010’s Never Stop – their first album of all originals, and also their strongest full-length up to that point – was an obvious mid-career milestone.
The sequel is another. The Bad Plus’ third covers-free set, it’s also their first to feature a lineup change, with Orrin Evans stepping in for co-founder Ethan Iverson on piano. It’s a surprising move on the surface, considering both the band’s staunch collective identity and the fact that Evans, an old friend of Bad Plus bassist Reid Anderson, arrives with his own 20-plus-year track record of classy yet intense post-bop. Still, the album couldn’t sound more consistent with the core Bad Plus M.O., which has always been about putting distinctive, memorable songs first and letting them guide the band’s exploratory, idiosyncratic improvisations.
As on past efforts, it’s bassist Reid Anderson who takes the lead here, contributing half of the album’s eight pieces. His latest creations – especially opener “Hurricane Birds,” driven by a drum ‘n’ bass–esque groove from drummer Dave King, and soulful, backbeat-powered second track “Trace” – epitomize the band’s signature blend of poppy melodicism and proggy intricacy. On each, you can hear Evans having a ball with the bassist’s themes, savoring their tight contours while adding his own bluesy flourishes. Anderson returns the favor on the toy-piano–accented “Boffadem” and the suite-like “Commitment,” older Evans pieces repurposed for the Bad Plus, digging into the tunes’ sturdy bass vamps.
But the clearest example of the band’s new unity might be “Kerosene II,” a tender, achingly spare Anderson ballad included as a digital bonus track. The trio’s performance follows a classic jazz form, with the theme bracketing a brief, understated Evans solo, and King keeping simple time on brushes. No one musician stands out; instead, it’s the song that’s the star – a sign that, personnel swap aside, Never Stop II is Bad Plus business as usual.