Magazine article The New Yorker

Life on Mars

Magazine article The New Yorker

Life on Mars

Article excerpt

Standing in line for tickets the other night at the Carnegie Hall box office, one could not be faulted for wondering: Why do so many observers of the cultural scene fret about older subscription audiences when tonight, for example, the lobby was filled with so many young men in attractive evening gowns? Admittedly, this was not a scientific survey, and yet there was a pleasant suspicion: Was Emanuel Ax drawing, at last, on an ever-widening transvestite fan base? If so, good for him!

But, then, you know how it is--you pocket your tickets and go your own way, this time to see the jazz trio the Bad Plus, over at Zankel Hall, Carnegie's midsize jewel box for recitals and "special" performances. The Bad Plus are the Coen brothers of jazz: Midwesterners, both ironic and dead earnest, technically brilliant, beyond versatile, unembarrassedly derivative, a little chilly sometimes, but funny, surprising, and pretty hard to pin down. On seven albums and in performance, the three play mainly their own compositions, but their younger fans revere them (and sometimes the critics rake them) for their covers of heavily melodic pop tunes: Burt Bacharach's "This Guy's in Love with You," Aphex Twin's "Flim," Black Sabbath's "Iron Man," the Pixies' "Velouria." Their version of David Bowie's "Life on Mars" is spookily intelligent, and their "Heart of Glass," Blondie's big hit in 1979, is played as if through the filter of Gyorgy Ligeti. And yet when it gets to the point where they are joyfully winging their way through the "Chariots of Fire" theme, you rightly ask, Are they kidding? Where late Coltrane sinned on the side of self-seriousness, is the Bad Plus going all wised-up and hyper-ironic on us?

Not so, Ethan Iverson, the pianist, says: no joke intended, they really do love these tunes. Jazz musicians have been adopting folk songs and Broadway melodies since the year zero. After all, "What is more ironic than Thelonious Monk's 'Just a Gigolo'?"

Onstage, the band members arrange themselves, left to right, from the deceptively stolid to the decidedly unhinged. Iverson is bald, goateed, besuited, and classically trained, and, when describing the tunes, he speaks in a spacey, Steven Wright monotone. One tune, Iverson gravely informed the Zankel audience, is "about a bowler named Bernie. He lived in Queens in the seventies." Another tune was "about a shy girl named Beryl. She's in high school and she hasn't, um, blossomed. …

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