NZ Arts Festival 2008, Wellington Town Hall
Feb 28 | Reviewed by Brannavan Gnanalingam

I WAS CLOSE to not eating for two weeks so I could go see Ornette Coleman. However, as I needed food, I ended up seeing The Bad Plus instead. They’re obviously not the provocateurs, innovators, or in the same genius league as Coleman but then very few people are. Instead, they were fun, lively, and very endearing, almost masking their cleverness with goofy geekiness. It was the kind of virtuouso performances you’d expect from jazz performers, the music being told with verve and charm.

Though I must say it’s a bit weird sitting so far back to watch jazz in the Town Hall, even though the Town Hall has probably the best acoustics in the city. I need to smell the instruments singeing from the furious playing, feel the stentorian blare of the instruments making sounds they weren’t designed to make, taste the alcohol-stained, flu-ridden breath of uncomfortable crowds. I’m a romantic. Perhaps I’ve read too much Kerouac, or am fifty years behind the times in imagining seeing Charlie Parker and the like in smoky, segregated bars, but there was just too much space between the audience and the performers (or maybe just me). It took a while for me to be won, in fact, a half-time break, but in the second half, they really let rip, exploring and messing with tonality, rhythms and timbres. And it was a pleasure to watch.

They are eccentric performers, with stories and titles coming straight out of left-field. Ethan Iverson’s droll delivery of his stories suggests a career in stand-up is always a potential alternative to his sparkling piano playing. The drumming however, stood out - David King’s use of different parts of the kit, different ways of hitting his kit, and his obvious enjoyment with playing, was infectious. They focused on material from 2007’s Prog (a particular highlight was ‘Giant’), but did run through their back catalogue. The also played some of their covers, perhaps one of the reasons for their reputation, including their now (in)famous cover of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ for their encore. A particular highlight was a deconstruction of Vangelis’ ‘Theme from Chariots of Fire’. Iverson admitted they kind of know Vangelis, well, they’re on his mailing list. It was a compelling watch, and once I got over my spatial problems, a thoroughly enjoyable performance.