To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, musician, composer, improviser, and sound artist Cody McKinney shares his perspective on The Bad Plus Bill Frisell: ’85-’95 at the Walker on Friday, September 29, 2017.
I don’t know how to write reviews. I know that when I read them, they’re either so critical that it seems like a member of the band slept with the reviewer’s wife or so passive and decorative with language that it could be mistaken for narration in Ken Burns’s 10-part series on LSD. I’m not gonna let that happen to me, dammit. I’m gonna drive right down the middle like the true, passive-aggressive Minnesotan I was raised to be.
Entering the McGuire Theater, the pre-show buzz was pretty palpable. It was filled with many people like myself: musicians who watched Dave King slowly ascend the ranks in the mid-’90s to become one of the most well known and respected improvisers of his generation. What Kennedy was for Irish in the early ’60s, Dave King was to Midwest improvisers in the late ’90s and early 2000s. We, the ever-resilient, Midwestern, Gen-Y creatives finally had one of our own in the big leagues.
Now, this appeared to be the kind of show people would bring their work friends to. After all, a uniting factor for these four musicians—Ethan Iverson, Reid Anderson, and Dave King of The Bad Plus, along with Bill Frisell—is their ability to impart inspiration and awe to anyone, despite the varying degrees of musical pedigrees present. Both creative forces have a vast catalogue of palatable, yet powerful music in their histories. Yet all four musicians also have deep roots in some very experimental realms. Much of Frisell’s denser and more challenging pieces come from the very time period being reimagined here tonight, 1985 to 1995. It seemed that the majority of the jazz nerds like me in the audience were wondering what version/combination of these two powerhouses would show up. It turned out to be both.
Entering stage left, onto a beautifully intimate yet grand stage apparently designed by Batman, King takes a moment to show some trademark “humility with humor” at how deeply they all feel about Bill’s influence and this collaboration. Ready, set, go.
They launch into “Unsung Heroes,” a Monk-like meditation on blues, which challenges form and melody as a consequence of concept. They are in it. This groove will surely churn heavy cream into butter by the time it’s done. But then… here comes Bill! Bryan Nichols, a friend (and King bandmate), remarked, “We got all the different Bills. We got looping Bill and country Bill and fuzzy overdrive Bill.” With all this extra seasoning, it’s quickly becoming that expensive soft butter served at nice Italian restaurants that sing their own version of a birthday song way too loud, like the one Tom Hanks goes to for his birthday in the movie Big. Whew.
Moving forward, I didn’t keep track of song titles. Mostly, I tried to remember moments. Like the moment in an aggressively free tune, where Frisell dropped out, leaving the audience to witness prime Bad Plus interplay like no other outfit can do. They played with such connectivity and reckless abandon, I became a bit sad knowing this was likely the last time I would see the Bad Plus in its original incarnation (in January 2018, Orrin Evans will replace Ethan Iverson on piano).
Along the way, there were some hiccups. A pseudo-calypso piece sorta fell flat for me and seemed to wander uneventfully, like a runaway child at an unfamiliar mall. Much of Frisell’s music reminds me of Thelonious Monk for a minimalistic and slightly dystopian world. He manages to put a great amount of humanity back into that world by utilizing his deep folk and blues understanding. If you don’t really focus in on some of the minutiae of these pieces, they can start to blend together a bit. In saying that, some of the forms may have become a bit more liquid than they would have preferred. Then again, you can hardly blame anyone for missing a beat or two of what sounds like an 87-1/2 bar blues with measures of 5 and 7 thrown in for good fun. I’m not really sure if any of that happened, as I am frequently distracted, thinking up non sequiturs I could use in academic papers. So whether these moments were actual mistakes or just perceived as mistakes, they lasted for mere milliseconds, as the group used their improvisatory super powers to continually readjust and continuously pull rabbits out of hats.
I think the MVP award for the night goes to Ethan Iverson. He potentially holds the smallest share of the quartet’s Venn diagram of influences. There seemed to be a natural collective movement, shared between King, Frisell, and Anderson; after all, they all come from “rock band land.” They all could have been listening to Van Halen’s “Eruption” on giant headphones in their collective basements at some point in their youth. Iverson, on the other hand, seems to be 100 percent art music. “Academic Jazz,” “Species Counterpoint,” and “Voice Leading Clusters,” I imagine, are all titles of books on his Kindle. Perhaps minimalists like Reich or Glass are as rock ’n’ roll as he gets. With that in mind, Iverson picked his spots. He laid out when he knew his eight-note voicing would be too “Lennie Tristano” when the moment was calling for a punch-drunk Basie. When he did lend a hand on the melodies, as in the Turkish coffee version of “Live to Tell” by Madonna, you couldn’t help but be moved by his subtlety, which created a complexity just beyond what a guitar trio is capable of doing. In the hands of musicians like Iverson, the piano reaches back in time. You hear the counterpoint of Bach, you hear the hints of what’s to come in Wagner, you obviously hear the confetti-like explosion of Stravinsky. By having a pianist so adept at the historical role of his instrument, it not only adds to the music via his astounding capabilities, it rips Frisell’s music off of the timeline in which it was created and elevates it, making it timeless.
The single song encore could have gone on for an hour longer, as far as I’m concerned. It was fitting that after all of the “Bills” had come out to say hello, we ended with a little chamber music Bill—always one of my favorite “Bills,” ever since first hearing Billy the Kid and all the Copeland music he recorded in the early ’90s. It also gave the audience a brief moment to hear bassist Reid Anderson’s melodic voice come to the front. As a bassist myself, I know what Anderson did and does for this music. He is the tireless interpreter of two sets of harmonic concepts coming at him from either direction. He is the pillow when the drummer is playing on top, and the comping is laying back. He is always providing a place where multiple ideas can coexist, all the while not getting in the way of the melody and not over-defining the harmony so as to become a place of immobility for the soloist.
If you were there, you know. If you weren’t, you missed a very special night of collaboration between some of the deeper improvisers alive.