The Bad Plus: These are the Bad Plus
The countryside around Corsham in Wiltshire is among the most picturesque in England. On this sunny autumn morning, the buttercups, daisies and dandelions profusely decorate the fields, and the lush green meadows dotted with woodlands gaze down on a racing stream. Mysterious prehistoric sites-standing stones, burial mounds and earthworks-seem as if they are around every corner, and within a 30 minute drive are the historic sites of Glastonbury, Stonehenge and King Alfred's ancient stronghold, Athelney.
It's a scene that hasn't changed much in centuries.
Follow the main road that winds through these parts and you come to the quaintly named village of Box. Here you'll find a 200-year-old millhouse that was given a new lease of life in 1987 when it was converted into Real World Studios by rock star Peter Gabriel. In the main studio, hunched over a mixing desk with recording engineer Tchad Blake, is the Bad Plus, working on the final mix of These Are the Vistas, the trio's major-label debut for Columbia.
During a break, Yves Beauvais, Columbia's energetic and farsighted new vice president of A&R, introduces the guys in the band. "This is Dave King, the drummer; he's a founding member of a [jazz] band in Minneapolis called the Happy Apple," he says, pointing to a beefy, tough looking guy with a ready laugh. "Here's Reid Anderson, their bassist, who has been working with Mark Turner, Claudia Acuña and Stefon Harris and his own groups in New York," Beauvais continues, nodding toward a tall, slender figure with a studious frown. "And this is Ethan Iverson, their pianist who has his own trio and is the musical director of the Mark Morris Dance Group based in New York, one of the top two or three dance groups in the country." Definitely a pianist: academic looking, concerned with detail yet cautiously witty.
But how did two guys from New York and one from Minneapolis find themselves in the depths of the English countryside following the likes of Kylie Minogue, Placebo, the Stereophonics and Robert Plant by making an album in one of Europe's best-known rock studios?
"Dave King is a great fan of Tchad Blake," Beauvais says. "Tchad's made some of the most sonically innovative records in pop music in the last 10 or 15 years or so and picked up two Grammys. He's worked with people like Suzanne Vega, Elvis Costello, Pearl Jam, Sheryl Crow, Los Lobos and also plays bass for the Latin Playboys-he's a sonic wizard who comes from a rock 'n' roll perspective but can give us the kind of sound we want for Bad Plus. He was here working on Peter Gabriel's new album and could fit us in for six days, so here we are."
The sound Blake has conjured up for These Are The Vistas bristles with grit and sinew. It leaps out of your speakers, unbalances your picture frames, steps all over your furniture and scares the bejesus out of the cat.
It is one of the most important albums to appear in jazz in more than a decade.
The Bad Plus is a power piano trio with outsized dynamics: fortissimo roars and pianissimo barely whispers. Through the shifting lead of the instruments, the Bad Plus shows that the piano trio still has a lot more to say. One moment it's the bass that predominates, or the drums, or the piano, and then all three might congregate around a groove in their own individual ways, everybody soloing but nobody soloing, creating an edgy and original ensemble sound. These Are the Vistas sounds as if it was conceived in 2003, not 1963.
"We're not traditionalists in any sense," Anderson says during a coffee break in the rugged Cotswold stone building adjacent to the studio that in days gone by provided living quarters for the mill owner. "We're strongly influenced by lots of music that's happening today, not just listening to recordings of their time over and over again and trying to emulate them. We're very much interested in the music that is happening now and want to be part of that; that's more important to us than fitting into any preconceived idea of what jazz is supposed to mean."
It's a view King expands on. "Today we have the ability to listen to lots of music from all over the world. You can surround yourself with artwork from all cultures, and I don't see how you can really create anything relevant to your own life and experience without incorporating [some of this]. I've never understood separating yourself off to be a part of some sort of tradition, like a sort of collector's society. I'm not a part of that way of thinking, whether that makes you beyond it or less than it, I just don't care either way.
"We don't all have to live under the umbrella of this 'jazz masters concept.' We all have the right to say something, whether or not it's great or incredible. I think young musicians today have to feel they can contribute, that they don't have to be some sort of working commodity to keep some sort of museum piece together."
For the members of the Bad Plus, a tradition-based synthesis of earlier jazz styles failed to provide an adequate outlet to express their irrepressible creativity. "There's so much boring jazz-very rehashed, not compelling," Anderson says. "The thing we are very concerned with in Bad Plus is bringing the audience along with us; we have no desire to play esoteric music for two people. The music we're playing is complex, it's dynamic, it's not easy music, but at the same time we're very concerned with the clarity of the presentation, the clarity of the composition, bringing people along."
One of the delights of the Bad Plus is the trio's use of modern pop songs as launching pads for their rocket-fueled improvisations. "We enjoy playing things like Nirvana and Abba and Aphex Twin, because we consider it great music," Anderson says. "It's a fun vehicle for us to use as improvisers, it's definitely a challenge to take that music to find a way to present it that is interesting for us as players and interesting for the listener, but at the same time when we're playing Abba's 'Knowing Me, Knowing You,' and we hit the refrain of the tune, it changes the temperature in the room. People respond to it in a way that's very gratifying-not in a cheap way-just that shared kind of experience."
One of the problems of appropriating songs from popular culture is that the memory of the tune's original performance is often difficult to disentangle from the song itself, because it's the performance that achieves an autonomous character, not the song. Yet after just two years together, the Bad Plus has such a sharply defined musical personality that it doesn't surrender its identity to a pop song; the trio imposes its identity on it. This, of course, is what all the great jazz musicians have done during the music's long and productive relationship with popular culture, from Louis Armstrong playing "You're Driving Me Crazy" in 1930 to John Coltrane playing "My Favorite Things" in 1961 to Miles Davis playing "Time After Time" in 1984 to Brad Mehldau playing Radiohead's "Exit Music (For a Film)" in 1999.
As Iverson points out, you "ignore popular culture at your peril," something he was guilty of until he joined Bad Plus. "I don't listen to pop music; I never have, I didn't grow up with it," he says. "I've listened to nonbackbeat music mostly, but Reid and Dave understand it so deeply I can meet them in the middle, and it will fit."
Iverson loves telling the story about how pop songs began entering the group's repertoire. "Our first gig was May 2000. We start asking each other, 'What are we gonna play?' Dave and Reid say, 'Let's play some rock music.' I said it never works, and besides, I told them, I didn't know any of the songs. 'No, we can make it work,' they say. 'Let's play X'; don't know it. 'Let's play Y'; don't know it. 'Let's play "Smells Like Teen Spirit."' Don't know it.
"At this point their stunned reaction suggested my ignorance was profound-like sort of not knowing the earth revolved around the sun. Then it changed to glee when I had to learn "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Now it's central to the band book, one of our favorite pieces to play." Since the '60s there hasn't been the sort of societal connection between what the masses are listening to and what jazz musicians are interpreting.
There Are the Vistas features three tunes from popular culture, masterful deconstructions (and well-conceived reconstructions) of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," with its feedback from dual walkie-talkies at the end, Aphex Twin's electronica composition "Flim" and Blondie's "Heart of Glass," which is splintered into shards of crystalline abstraction. These are interpretations that depend on feverish intensity and deep rapport for their volatile inspiration; it's not about exploiting their novelty value.
As King says, "We're predominantly an original band, but the way that we would approach any cover music is solely based on a love for the composition. It's not saying, 'Oh look, it's electronic music made by an acoustic-piano trio.' Reid's a big Aphex Twin fan, and he presented 'Flim' to us. Now I love trying to jazzify electronic synthetic grooves in an organic way; it's a very interesting challenge. I mean, at the end of the day it's a piece of music. It's the same with 'Heart of Glass.' It's a beautiful song; it's a standard of the day, and it's like, 'What can we do with that?' because it goes on some wild ride: there's humor, there's sadness, there's all emotions. It's not like, 'Let's deconstruct Blondie because it's so simple.' It's more like, 'It's a great composition, and it's worth exploring to see what you can bring to it.'"
However seemingly subversive and compelling the Bad Plus' loving deconstruction of a song like "Smells Like Teen Spirit" may be, the essence of the band is found in its original compositions. As Anderson says, "This is a situation where we have all been able to fully realize ourselves; we respond to each other and support each other in a very strong way. It's a very group-orientated process in terms of arranging tunes. It's almost like a garage-band approach: We just throw our ideas in there and work it out together. I think that's what I feel is important about this group: there's not one conceptual leader. The three of us have an equal say in what happens. In a way, that's hard to achieve; it's not like there's a recipe for that sort of thing."
There are seven originals on the album, often with intriguing titles such as King's "1972 Bronze Medallist," a musical fantasia of how the hero lives his life after capturing the hearts of the people, still wearing his medal years later; "Keep the Bugs Off Your Glass and the Bears Off Your Ass" is for truckers everywhere; "Boo Wah" evokes an apocalyptic 4H club; and the dramatic "Silence Is the Question" is best heard with moody, dimmed lights, so the band says.
"We're from the same geographical region," Iverson says. King and Anderson grew up in Minnesota, Iverson in Wisconsin. "We watched the same TV shows as little tykes. We saw a lot of the same concerts growing up: the three of us were at the same Keith Jarrett trio shows, the same Paul Motian band show, the same Gerri Allen trio show. There are certain things we share like a tribal language, something which has been extremely helpful in trying to find a group sound-there's something that we understand instinctively about each other."
Musically, the Bad Plus' coming together began when King first heard Anderson sing in a junior high school rock-band showcase in 1984. "Dave and I grew up together; we've known each other for probably 16 years," Anderson says. "I met Ethan in my first year of college. I went to school in Wisconsin, and Ethan was still in high school at the time. We were introduced to each other and hit it off immediately because of our shared love of Charlie Haden's bass playing."
The three of them first played together in 1989, but as Iverson says, "A tape of that session would now be great blackmail material." Although they then went their separate ways-Anderson to the Curtis Institute of Philadelphia, where he earned a degree in classical music performance; King remaining on the Minneapolis music scene; Iverson moving to New York-they remained in touch. "When I moved to New York about eight years ago, Ethan and I reconnected," Anderson says. "We've been playing together ever since. He plays on all my records; I play on his records."
Then King came back into the picture. "Actually, it was Dave's idea to form a band," says Iverson. "He was [still living and working] in Minneapolis, but Dave was in a great band called Happy Apple, a phenomenal group with electric bass and tenor saxophone. They are a cooperative, and he had that kind of experience and said, 'Hey, let's do this ourselves.' And he came up with the name the Bad Plus. He was the guy who had the foresight to say, 'Let's do it this way.'"
That was in 2000, and the initial result of their collaboration was their eponymous 2001 debut album, released on the Spanish label Fresh Sound New Talent. Word of the band spread gradually, and even though gigs were infrequent, Yves Beauvais caught a performance at New York's Village Vanguard in June 2002. "What really sold me was not only do they do some big pop songs, but also the quality of their writing of the original compositions is absolutely staggering," Beauvais says. "I was very struck by the fact this music feels as if it is now, today. Great energy, and a fairly extraordinary level of virtuosity."
The large, red sun begins to set as a skylark lazily begins his ascent, singing all the way. Iverson and King stand at the millrace outside the studio, a picturesque 15-foot waterfall that provided the power for the mill for almost two centuries. It's a tranquil scene that invites contemplation.
The musicians in the Bad Plus are at a key point in their careers, and they know it. They are in the right place at the right time, with audiences becoming tired, for the second time in jazz history, of the certainties of hard bop. Change is in the air, and the Bad Plus is poised to be a part of that change. In jazz, the heights of individual virtuosity have been scaled, and now one of the challenges is to create an effective context for music-making that is based as much on intense group interaction as a soloist's heroics.
"I think it so important for jazz to get back to these working ensembles," King says. "I think that some really important, powerful music can come out of it; you align your energy together and your ideas. So often I'll hear a record and you have all these great players and they just sound like islands stuck together, like, 'I've got some stuff I'm going to put in here'; 'I've got some stuff I'm going to put in here'; 'I've got to get my two cents in!' Having to work with people intimately and to share a canvas takes a little of the bravado out of jazz, the 'I've got all this bad, vast technique, and I'm going to throw it out there, man, because that's what it's about!' syndrome. It's not about that. It's about bands, to be in a band, to have a vision together, to be aware there's something esoteric underneath that you've got to pay attention to."
Iverson, too, is in a reflective mood. "I have a good feeling," the pianist begins slowly. "I personally didn't feel hindered by the studio environment; I really went for it. Reid and Dave really went for it! A lot of times in the studio there's a feeling of trying to be careful-that's not this record. I also know that this is just the beginning, the prelude to what this could be. I'm really interested to see how we can play in five years-if we can keep our egos in check, if we keep our focus on the road ahead, if we develop a language of our own."
Originally published in April 2003