The Bad Plus: Band on the Run
It's Friday night early in the New Year at Joe's Pub in New York City. The Bad Plus' Reid Anderson, Ethan Iverson and Dave King are huddled in an empty closet that functions as a backstage dressing room, trying to sort out the night's set list. Iverson is sitting on the one chair in the room, writing on a small slip of paper as shortened titles of the band's repertoire are considered. Remarkably, there is no talk of "I" amongst the three guys who became the "It" jazz group of 2003.
"We should do 'Do Your Sums,'" King says of an Iverson composition. "What about 'Street Women'?" asks Iverson, looking at the other two, referring to an Ornette Coleman song. While nothing is said about it, a balance of compositions from each member is included. A radically overhauled version of Black Sabbath's classic "Iron Man" closes the set. The encore is left to be decided later.
The band's second album for Columbia, Give, is due out in a few months, but the band (Anderson, bass; Iverson, piano; King, drums) is already long familiar with the material, having performed much of it while out in support of These Are the Vistas, its debut.
The band toured like madmen in 2003 on the strength of Vistas, playing more than 100 shows in Japan, Brazil, Europe, Canada and the United States. They appeared on the CBS's Saturday Early Show; they garnered coverage in Newsweek, the New Yorker, the New York Times, Esquire, Rolling Stone (who voted Vistas one of the top 50 albums of the year and did a New Faces feature on the band), Entertainment Weekly, Blender and other outlets not predisposed to jazz coverage. They've opened for the rock band Wilco, played the Newport Jazz Festival, and appeared at NPR's Piano Jazz Christmas show at the Kennedy Center.
Like the last CD, Give is produced by binaural recording engineer Tchad Blake, who has worked with such rockers as Los Lobos, Pearl Jam, Sheryl Crow, Tom Waits and others. Going against jazz convention (can anyone explain why so many jazz albums sound so flat and the rhythm section is mixed down?), Blake's production jumps out of the speakers: the sound is panoramic instead of claustrophobic, the drums are meaty, the bass is as loud as the piano, at any given time one player can play loud enough to overshadow the others.
The band's dynamic sound, risk-taking approach, choice of covers and refreshing showmanship has caught the attention of music fans of all shapes and sizes-the audience at Joe's included college students, 20-something alterna-rockers, yuppies and jazz-heads. It's a varied cross section of people for most jazz artists, much less a group willing to go so far into abstract improvised music.
Because of this exposure, the band has taken some hits from certain quarters, likely those coveting or annoyed by the high-profile coverage. Accusations of the trio doing fake jazz, being celebrated because of their skin color and pandering to audiences with rock cover songs have been made. Others were annoyed to find out that the Bad Plus was declared the future of jazz.
"I can sort of understand where that criticism comes from," says Iverson, as the band sits eating pizza between sound check and the gig. "Some press announced that we were the future of jazz. A case was made for us, and here we are doing a Nirvana cover. Of course the truth of the matter is none of the three of us said that we were the future of jazz. I never said that. In fact, I'm just trying to play the piano good."
Of course, Iverson plays piano just fine.
The criticism of the trio pandering to the audience, however, is spot on, and the band couldn't be happier about it. "We're done with the avant-garde that plays in front of no one and is proud of it," says King, who speaks knowingly of sleeping on friends' floors while touring and playing to an audience of one (if you count the guy selling T-shirts) or two (if you also count the soundman). All in their early 30s, the Bad Plus' members have paid their dues, wondering if rent will be paid or whether they'll have work next month.
"It's not that we changed the music we've been hearing and playing," says King, who is now warming to his subject. "It's just that the belief, the energy and the positive connection with the audience is really happening. We're trying to end the cynicism that lords over music. The whole concept that people have to have their own little things? We're not into that. I want to be the guy who says, 'I like Pearl Jam, even though they're not hip anymore.'"
The Bad Plus proved that you can win an audience over with a strong sense of character-Iverson or King chats with the audience between songs and there's usually a quirky story that goes with each song introduced that keeps the tone light and the audience chuckling, cheering and making good-natured catcalls as if they were at a rock concert.
The band has also proved that projecting a palpable sense of energy gets people excited and goes a long way when the band goes to the musical edge, or several edges-the trio will play completely free at times, pushing the music into chaos, then at other times they'll do a tune that has little if any improvisation. Funky or disjointed, loud or quiet, jazzy or rockin', they take the music to the limit.
Of course, each member chimes in with their own theory of why they like the edges:
Anderson: "The point is that we go for extremes in every direction. It's extremes in dynamics, extremes in energy. It's all from the idea of total commitment."
King: "It's from living in Minnesota. Every aspect of the weather in Minnesota is full on. When it's humid, it's real humidity; it's jungle humidity. If it's cold, you better believe that it's like walking around Antarctica...
Iverson: "I think we've all been drawn to music that has extremes, too-jazz or whatever. My favorite pianist is Thelonious Monk. He's the most extreme, supremely beautiful player. There is no note he plays that isn't pushed in a certain way. Him, Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane. Those are the people I was always drawn to."
Take your pick. They're all right.
These guys have spent a lot of time together in the last year, riffing off each other on and off stage, but the chemistry of the Bad Plus goes back much further. King and Anderson went to the same junior high school in Minneapolis and have played together on and off since. Iverson grew up a few hours east in Menominee, Wisc., and met Anderson during the bassist's short stint at a nearby college before each headed to New York City.
The three kept in touch over the intervening 10 years; then they decided that it was time to do something together, try and make a regular band out of it and see where it went. It didn't matter that Iverson and Anderson both lived in New York City, while King had stayed in Minneapolis and was active with the jazz band Happy Apple and several rock outfits.
"It was therapy to get together," King recalls of those early rehearsals, enjoying the freedom of the endless possibilities: "We'd get together and say, 'Let's play the Oompa Loompa theme from Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and go into Hendrix's "Spanish Castle Magic," but we're going to do it like Bill Frisell would.' It's always been this thing that we do, that we talk about together and play together."
While the choice of producer was a very conscious effort to step away from jazz convention, the band's much critiqued (both positive and negative) choice of covers is something more natural to the group. The band acknowledges that the cover of the Nirvana hit "Smells Like Teen Spirit" has attracted some attention, but King and Anderson wanted to record it simply because they loved the song and thought it'd be fun to deconstruct.
"Aphex Twin's 'Flim' didn't sell two million copies," says King of another cover from the first album. "'Heart of Glass' gets its ass torn out. It sounds more like Ligeti meets Keith Moon's dildo collection. It's not exactly us being jazz guys connecting with the rockers."
The three booked gigs in both towns starting in 2000, turning the geography into an advantage. "I recommend to you bands coming up to have band members in different cities because it immediately diversifies you," Iverson councils. "Of course you're paying to play-we probably lost thousands of dollars over the years on plane tickets, advertising and whatnot. At the same time, we were able to establish ourselves in two cities instead of one."
It was immediately apparent that the acoustic trio had a remarkable sense of dynamics and a willingness to try anything. That chemistry has evolved since then. "There's an incredible amount of pulling the rug out from under band members," Anderson says. "But we each know that we'll get caught at the last second by the others. At the same time, we can go off and get into trouble on our own and try to find our way back."
Trouble indeed. King's favorite story is one his father told him. Dwayne King is one of the band's biggest fans, regularly following them around on tour. One night after a show, he pulled Iverson aside and asked him why he and Dave often stared at each other when they played, particularly when the parts were really intricate. Iverson gets a glimmer in his eye, and tells him: "What's really going on is I'm saying, 'Take that motherfucker!' Then Dave goes, 'Oh yeah, fuck face! Fuck you! Take that!'"
All three of them laugh as King tells the story.
There's a distinct familial feel to the band. They are brothers, and they like to rough each other up, only to watch each other's back if they get into a spot of trouble. While each does still enjoy playing in other projects, all three agree that the democratic concept of a band fits them best.
"I've done sideman gigs, but I've never really wanted it to be about making a living doing it," King points out. "The band concept works for Happy Apple too. I know musicians that are able to walk into a certain situation and be the musician that is needed without really knowing the people they are playing with. I admire people like that. But I'm more effective, if I'm effective in any way, if I'm allowed to be a part of the moment."
The band talks at length about commitment to the music, each other and the audience. But talk is cheap. It's readily apparent when audiences check these guys out that they are for real, doing exactly what they want to do. It may not be what floats your boat, but there is no denying their musicianship and effectiveness. When it's on, it can be amazing, even to the band members themselves.
"We were sound-checking in Minneapolis," recalls King. "And Ethan was in his sweat pants pounding away at the keys as if his life depended on it. His arms were up in the air smashing down on the keys, his face turned bright red and he looked like he was about to explode. Like the roof was about to cave in or something. And Reid and I sort of dropped out after the engineer got the sound levels. Ethan is over there breathing hard, looking around, pissed that the music had stopped. I remember thinking: 'Thank God he's with us.'"
Originally published in April 2004