Conditions were less than ideal when the Bad Plus first played Chris' Jazz Cafe in 2003. The club's notoriously tuning-resistant piano was crammed into a narrow corner opposite the bar. Young fans drawn by the band's penchant for covering Nirvana and Blondie hits crowded around cross-legged on the floor, uncomfortably close.
Yet the irreverent jazz trio kept coming back, and this weekend they helped celebrate Chris' 22d anniversary with a two-night stint Friday and Saturday. Much has changed at Chris' over the last nine years. The pool tables at the back of the room have disappeared, replaced with a full stage and a better piano.
The Bad Plus also has changed: Missing from the two sets on Saturday night were any of those crowd-pleasing, slightly tongue-in-cheek rock covers, as they were from their last two albums. The band's focus has shifted more fully to the members' own distinctive compositions, which combine puckish bombast with a playfully subversive sense of experimentation.
Each set began in sedate fashion, though both quickly established why the Bad Plus remain the rare jazz group that deserves to be called a power trio. The evening began with the sweetly wistful sound of bassist Reid Anderson's "Pound for Pound" from the trio's latest album, Made Possible. As the piece strolled on, Anderson and pianist Ethan Iverson began spinning tendril-like deviations from the main melodic line while drummer Dave King tripped and stuttered the beat with the acrobatic tumbling of a silent-film comedian.
King's stunt work was especially impressive during the first set when a piece of drum gear, the hi-hat clutch, went missing.
They tore through the hyperactive grooves and restlessly shifting rhythms of King's "The Empire Strikes Backwards." On Anderson's "Know the Difference," their snarled instrumental lines constantly threatened to unravel into chaos, finally pulling back from the brink into a laid-back syncopation.