When the Bad Plus released Never Stop II in 2018, new pianist Orrin Evans had been in the group for less than a year. He's since logged thousands of miles with them, playing concert halls and bandstands across the globe. That makes Activate Infinity, their second album together, a much more integrated affair. Evans' decades of experience as a bandleader and inventive hard bop-inspired pianist lend immeasurably to the quirk and instinct of this trio. Of the set's eight tunes, Anderson penned four, while Evans and King composed two apiece.
Opener "Avail," by the bassist, is introduced with jungle-esque snares and gently processional chords from the pianist. Anderson walks a tightrope between them, articulating a pair of melodies offering both an assonant dimension to King's rhythms and a contrapuntal one to Evans. The pianist's wonderful, brief solo moves nearly off the rails with sharp arpeggios and ostinatos, greeting the flourish of cascading bass notes and continually rolling snares and cymbals with contrast and dimension. That break excepted, this tune would have been at home on Anderson, King, and Craig Taborn's offering The Golden Valley Is Now. King's "Thrift Store Jewelry" is knotty post-bop, with edgy cadences and shifting rhythmic signatures amid fleet skeins of mid-register piano ostinati that touch alternately on both Horace Silver and Kenny Barron. Evans' "Red Door" is one of the set's highlights. His open acknowledgment of Ahmad Jamal's swinging, funky, lyrical influence creates a lightness even in the tune's most complex moments of melodic abstraction. His other selection, "Looking Into Your Eyes," is a sparse, impressionistic ballad that provides more mystery via Anderson's empathically articulate bassline. King's "Dovetail Nicely," with its interlocking piano and bass rhythms, does exactly that. Lyricism and groove entwine with the drummer's kinetic, double-time pace accented by elegant breaks. The closer, Anderson's "Love Is the Answer," is a haunted ballad during its first half, with King's staccato floor-tom rim and ride cymbal ticking in tandem. Evans investigates the melody sparsely while Anderson articulates its mirror image. It drops out for hushed individual expressions after every chorus; when the improvisation begins, the tempo increases and the tune shifts into a fluid post-bop articulation that releases none of the drama or tension. Anderson's fluid soloing adds heft and imagination that Evans and King follow down an intricately constructed rabbit hole. Activate Infinity is a canny, wildly creative expression of the Bad Plus' collective persona; it's inspired, sophisticated, fresh, and a joy to encounter, time and again.