At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)
It has become all too easy to forget how radical The Bad Plus seemed circa 2003, when These Are the Vistas appeared on the all-but-phased-out jazz imprint of Columbia Records. This acoustic but high-octane trio — with Reid Anderson on bass, Ethan Iverson on piano, David King on drums — presented a pugnacious front, not just unified in purpose but aggressively fused in its sound.
In recent months, the band has made news for its turbulent yet altogether successful transition from one social configuration to the next. Last spring, Iverson announced his intention to depart The Bad Plus, and his band mates appointed a successor, the postbop piano dynamo Orrin Evans. I delved into this story, speaking with all parties, and later helped create an episode of Jazz Night in America about it.
None of this drama was on the known horizon when These Are the Vistas made its entrance. At the time, and for quite a while afterward, The Bad Plus was impressive in its indivisibility, and in the assertion of a nonhierarchical model for the state-of-the-art improvising piano trio.
The other thing that grabbed attention was the band's choice of repertory. Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," Blondie's "Heart of Glass," Squarepusher's "Flim" — these were covers reflecting a Gen X sensibility, a set of preferences true to the life experience of Anderson and King. (Iverson, an unapologetic yet largely nonjudgmental jazz and classical partisan, came to rock and electronic music relatively late.)
What was already clear on These Are the Vistas, though some observers would take a while to acknowledge it, was the audacious integrity of its original music. Each member of The Bad Plus contributed new music to its book, and some of these pieces were fantastic in their scope and execution.
Reviewing the album for JazzTimes, I noted that the album's tour de force was "Silence is the Question," an Anderson composition that "works a small motif through successively more imploring conjugations, culminating in a riot of colors."
"If The Bad Plus has an effect on the greater landscape of jazz," I added, "it will be through such ecstatic vistas as these."
Below, find my first piece for The Village Voice — a review of The Bad Plus at the Bowery Ballroom, which solidified something about its pop-cultural reach.
Village Voice | Sound of the City | March 23, 2004
Power-piano trio takes jazz to the people—but no requests
By Nate Chinen
The dude who kept shouting for “Free Bird” doesn’t get the Bad Plus. Yes, they’re cornballs from the heartland. Yes, they’ve covered Nirvana and Neil Young. But there’s no place for irony in their rumpus room, which is littered with press clippings and spare neckties. An acoustic jazz piano trio with arena rock on the brain, this band courts chaos but never loosens its grip on the wheel.
At their first honest-to-goodness New York rock show, the Bad Plus managed to play every song but one from their new Columbia album Give. In fact, the show sounded more like the album—vast, thunderous, and cathartic—than like previous Bad Plus gigs in asymmetrical, low-ceilinged rooms. If last year’s Village Vanguard engagements were like crusaders storming the castle, this one was more a victory parade.
Partly this was due to the rapturous full house; partly it was inherent in the music. Ethan Iverson favors simple but somehow grandiloquent accents in the piano’s upper register, a trait counterbalanced by Anderson’s low-slung basslines and David King’s often brutish percussion. The net result is sweeping, epic: The Pixies’ “Velouria” came across like Squarepusher wrangling “Chariots of Fire.” Like every other song of the night, it reached a dramatic climax, with an air of triumph after great and noble struggle.
What kept that struggle engaging was how much the band is a band. Iverson played a lot of piano, but took standout solos only on Anderson’s luminous, lonesome “Neptune (Planet)” and King’s ploddingly funky “1979 Semi-Finalist.” He sounded most like a conventional piano-trio pianist on the stately new “Prehensile Dream.” He sounded least so on the inevitable first encore, Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man,” more viscerally satisfying in person than on disc. The second encore was a goofy sing-along called “People of the World Are United.” Thing is, they meant it.