Prog Talk – two things.
A month or so back, I discussed how much I’d been impressed with Dweezil Zappa’s Zappa Plays Zappa project and how the music, in spite of being complex and show-offish to play, was the opposite of a great deal of what we nowadays call PROG (formerly known as Progressive Rock). You can read that one here.
Well two things have been making me think again about Prog today.
The first was today’s announcement of the passing of Pink Floyd’s keyboard player Richard Wright, from Cancer, at age 65.
Keyboards played an important part in the style and substance of the Floyd, particularly the post Syd Barrett version of the band, i.e. the one most people know. Oddly enough, for a Prog band, Floyd have rarely been about athletic displays of virtuosity (although only a fool would discount, say, David Gilmour’s guitar prowess) in fact, their dreamscape sound and slow, almost bluesy demeanour stand in contrast to the notes-per-second crowd. As a result, I never really dwelled on Wright’s keyboard work that much. His presence was all about the ambience or supporting the song, a journeyman in prog if you will. Wright’s electric piano work on “Money”, his synthscapes on “Shine On (You Crazy Diamond)” or his organ arpeggios on “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” all became staple sounds in the post Floyd world of Alan Parsons styled album rock. And yet, we so seldom think of Richard Wright. Such is the legacy of a good utility player, supporting the song so David Gilmour or Roger Waters could lay down their sonic ache over it and take the spotlight. And not just that, apparently, according to something I read today, he also sang lead vocals on a few including “Time,” “Echoes,” and Syd’s song, “Astronomy Domine”. I also read that he was the only member of the Floyd not to show at the premiere of the The Wall movie. He left the band came back from time to time (he didn’t appear on The Final Cut album, but he continued to tour with Gilmour’s lineups of Floyd. Anyway, he’s gone to the Great Gig in The Sky now, so note his passing, if only because you pretty much know every riff he played without ever really thinking about who played it.
The other Prog thought came after attending a gig by The Bad Plus, last week at Yoshi’s in San Francisco.
They play a kind of modern improvisational jazz, rooted in be bop swing, and set in a piano, double bass and jazz drum kit motif, yet informed by rock melodies. These rock melodies, however are the starting point for expanded jazz solos and time signature defying jams. Their most recent recording was aptly named Prog, and features their instrumental interpretations of Rush’s “Tom Sawyer”, Tears For Fears’s “Everybody Wants To Rule the World” and David Bowie’s “Life On Mars” alongside their original compositions. Last week in concert, their “Tom Sawyer” was a standout, and their own songs sizzled. This is, as is the case in Dweezil Zappa’s current band, largely duo to the virtuoso calibre of the musicians on hand, all three of whom know how to play rings around the stage, but know when to hang back and play that most awesome of notes, the space between. Drummer David King is a treat to watch, he smiles, he laughs and calmly, joyously lays down some of the best drumming I’ve witnessed in my many years of concert going. Bass player Reid Anderson has that Charlie Haden sense of structure and harmony and like all of them knows that silence is often as groovy as a dotted eigth note. Finally, host and pianist Ethan Iverson, carries the main melodic direction with a broad sound and dexterity – his nimble rhythmic work opens up to full sustain pedalled colour work here and there and his hilarious introductions and humble demeanor suggest a bald John Hodgeman (the PC from the Mac commercials). Yeah, I dug them. They’re in that category where the Brad Meldhau Trio lives (that band does some Radiohead covers). A whole lot of true jazz exploration with a healthy dose of Prog, and a few touches of music rooted outside the jazz realm, such as Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” thrown in for good measure.
We close with a clip of The Bad Plus at work and at play in their EPK on YouTube. NOTE YouTube didn’t censor this video, (the way the pulled down the Sarah Palin Assembly of God one, but that’s another sad story. Click the link to read about THAT)