The Bad Plus + Kneebody Concert
I’ve just gotten back to the computer after a stimulating night of jazz music from two modern bands: New York based The Bad Plus and their opener, the LA jazz group Kneebody. Though both groups are broadly similar in being white and drawing either stylistic inspiration or material for interpretation from rock music, with Kneebody doing the former and The Bad Plus the latter, they have significant differences in musical approach. Kneebody is a five-piece group that leans heavily on grooves and a steady pulse to ground its horn section’s exuberant improvisation. Meanwhile, The Bad Plus is a trio, meaning its workouts are almost always first and foremost rhythmic, with less space for solos but, on the flip side, a deeper focus on tight group dynamics. The contrasts proved more than palatable in practice.
Though I have been an enthusiast for jazz for many years, my living situation and location have prevented me from seeing it performed live until now. I came away with some impressions into which I wanted to inject some structure.
1. Connections between music and comedy:
Both of the bands relegated to their bassists the task of announcing songs and interacting with the audience. Each group also leaned heavily on comedy, with The Bad Plus performing what sounded like a spontaneously invented song attempting to sell us merchandise after the show. Each of the band members accentuated the joke with their own musical contributions, and everyone in the––admittedly, Midwestern and politely square––audience, including my partner and me, laughed more than a little. It’s notable that both comedy and music are time-based art forms, and both comedy and music have popular improvised forms. Music is all about stretching and bending time into the right shape, punctuating it and using sound to accentuate the effects of time. Comedy is, famously, about injecting an unexpected shift or change at the right time, many times saying the perfect wrong thing at the correct moment. It’s no surprise, in light of this, that Bugs Bunny cartoons are so heavily linked to a musical score, which can often be just as funny as the action we see.
2. Jazz Audiences:
Keeping in mind that the demographics of the town in which the concert took place are overwhelmingly white, it was no surprise that the audience for the show was virtually all pasty. Jazz developed as a black musical form, and continues to be one of the most vital and innovative veins of black music, but in the United States groups tend to play for white crowds. Contributing to the financial crisis in jazz, those crowds are also aging rather than getting younger. I’m not going to wring my hands about the future of this musical form I love, but it was notable that, though the crowd skewed much younger than I expected, it was a sea of whiteness.
3. Enjoy the vibe
Unlike most pop shows I’ve been to, the presentational form was very subdued and focused intently on properly lighting the musicians and their instruments. No pyrotechnics, no dramatic lighting changes, etc. Perhaps the show could have benefited from those additions, but I think it would have compromised the overall spirit of the show, which was focused on making unexpected pleasures out of sound. It was thoroughly enjoyable regardless of its lack of pomp, which actually highlighted the playing. The music, is, after all, why we were there.