A few songs into their lean, heavy-hitting set at Knoxville’s Bijou Theatre, during the reflective coda of “The Empire Strikes Backwards” Bad Plus drummer Dave King squeaked an amplified toy duck, while pianist Ethan Iverson bathed the enthusiastic crowd in oceanic arpeggios. Given the Latin-tinged free-jazz ruckus that preceded, the trio had earned a moment to catch their collective breath.
So they did: Iverson remained hunched over the ivories, as if his piano were whispering him elusive secrets – occasionally stretching his arms backward into a fatigued superhero pose, like Superman after an all-night bender. Meanwhile, bassist Reid Anderson inhaled deeply – and frequently – as dark blue lights snaked across the stage.
The Bad Plus may have been a little out of shape during their tour-opening gig, but their reliable chops showed no signs of rust. Billed as “An Evening With the Bad Plus,” this no-frills performance lived up to that classy title. Without an opening act, the instrumental trio leisurely burned through an hour-and-a-half set, touching on a few fan favorites and ignoring the trademark, off-the-wall pop covers of their early albums, mostly debuting stellar material from their brand-new studio work, Made Possible.
“We’re only playing the songs from our new record tonight,” Anderson half-joked midway through the evening, before launching into “For My Eyes Only,” a sweetly melodic, valium-lounge comedown that offered a much-needed respite from the frequent bouts of sonic chaos, with Iverson twinkling out high-octave flourishes over a slow-motion groove. The Bad Plus can certainly whip up a racket, but when they get quiet, they get really quiet: “Pound for Pound” found Iverson at his most polite, tossing off elegant piano phrases over King’s stripped-down thud.
But the Bad Plus thrive on that delicate balance of pummel and pause. For every wash of soothing melody at the Bijou, there was a hair-raising avalanche of noise. Like any of their albums, a quintessential Bad Plus live show offers its fair share of breakneck noodling – something like a Seventies jazz-fusion ensemble after a dose of Adderall and a case of Red Bull. On a couple occasions, the trio seemed to be playing three songs at once: “Knows the Difference” (from 2005’s Suspicious Activity?) commenced as thunderous space-jazz and culminated in an unending bitch-slap of clanging piano chords and cymbal splashes. Meanwhile, the spastic new jam “Re-Elect That” felt like an extended warm-up for a song that never quite arrived. But some of the band’s most potent music is its most difficult, as evidenced by “Seven Minute Mind,” a jaw-dropping ostinato orgy with whiplash tempo changes.
Even the most indulgent moments were eased over by the band’s palpable zeal. King laughed heartily and often, nearly bouncing out of his drum chair on several occasions, letting loose with some hilarious cool-jazz scatting during an extended, metronomic drum break. After each song, Iverson turned around to face the crowd, cracking school-boy smiles that grew larger as the night progressed. To his credit, Anderson served as the evening’s awkward and adorable emcee: gripping the mic Bob Barker-style and doling out plenty of sarcastic asides. (After finishing “Re-Elect That,” the bassist cheekily avoided a political statement, noting, “That’s just the title of the song. You could re-elect anything – like the peanut butter you like. You could elect to keep buying it.”)
“It’s about feeling good in the most literal sense,” Anderson said with a laugh deep into the set, reflecting on the title of the new track “I Wanna Feel Good Part Two,” as the band drop-kicked their way through an onslaught of perky rhythmic interplay. Even at their headiest, the Bad Plus made good on that mantra.