Ethan Iverson & The Bad Plus: Three For All

A conversation with pianist Ethan Iverson about the band, the new album and jazz crossover

The Bad Plus, featuring Reid Anderson on bass, Ethan Iverson on piano and David King on drums, is without question one of the most talked about small groups in jazz today. The members all grew up in the Minneapolis area, where King still resides, and they played together in various bands before forming a cooperative jazz trio in 2000. They were signed to Columbia who successfully promoted them to newer and younger audiences, in part based on their own relative youth, but also based on their idiosyncratic approach to material, frequently covering and deconstructing alternative rock tunes or even classical compositions, and doing it all with a heavy dose of verve and improvisation. Over the last eight years, The Bad Plus has released six albums, plus another three limited-edition CDs. The group also has a very busy performance schedule, playing at both jazz and rock venues all over the world.

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Reid Anderson of The Bad Plus at the 2010 Rosslyn Jazz Festival
By Lee Mergner
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Dave King of The Bad Plus at the 2010 Rosslyn Jazz Festival
By Lee Mergner
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The Bad Plus
By Cameron Wittig
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The Bad Plus
By Cameron Wittig

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Pianist Ethan Iverson spoke with JT about the group’s new album, Never Stop, as well as about his own take on the past, present and future of jazz. Often mistakenly perceived as the leader of the group, Iverson made it clear that the trio is very much a cooperative with each member having an equal say. Nonetheless, as the author of a popular blog about jazz, Do the Math, in which he comments on music or trends and does interviews with notable artists such as Keith Jarrett or most recently Gunther Schuller, Iverson proved to be an excellent interview subject and de facto spokesman for the group in this instance.

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The trio is really such a tight unit, almost telepathic at this point. Are you still able to surprise each other on stage?

Absolutely. We try to throw curveballs. If a piece gets too much in a rut, then we probably stop playing it. Some pieces we’ve played almost since the beginning and are still fresh or surprising. There’s a song by Reid called “Big Eater” that we played at some of the first gigs, we’re still playing that one.

And The Bad Plus is a band that works a lot. Most jazz groups are not able to tour the way you guys do.

I think we were privileged to have been part of the last gasp of the old system. We got signed to Columbia and then we got a booking agent. There was this flurry of publicity. Whether we deserved it or not, we tried to take advantage of the buzz as much as we could. (We’d actually seen our peers that were given the chance, but they didn’t go all out, and they missed it.) That train only comes by once and we all knew it, so we tried to jump through that open window with both feet. I’m sure if we hadn’t, we wouldn’t be a working band any more. Every time we’re out, we always thank our lucky stars that we got the break and that we managed to work the break. I’m sure that people have been successful since us, but I think we were one of the last instrumental groups to have the benefit of this old-fashioned corporate record company really pushing us for a solid year. We owe a lot for that.

And it’s not like you were a hair band either.

We were lucky with this guy named Yves Beauvais. At corporations like that, you need a person to push you. Even if you get signed to a major label -- back then or today -- if you don’t have people fighting for you, you’re one and done. Yves really fought for us and we’ll always owe him for that.

Yves also signed James Carter and Madeleine Peyroux to major label deals, I believe.
He also did the Ornette Coleman box and the Led Zeppelin box. We love Ornette and Led Zeppelin, so to have Yves in our corner really meant something spiritually.

That’s an interesting intersection that reflects him as well as perhaps a lot of us. I think that most younger jazz fans have that sort of broader catholic taste.

I think it’s hurt the music—that feeling that it’s an elitist music. That’s fine if you’re a professional. I geek out on my blog Do the Math about jazz detail and it’s part of my persona in the world. However, I never felt that this music should be considered as anything but connected to the street. A lot of my favorite jazz was very popular in its day. You didn’t need to have a decoder ring to understand it.

What would that have been for you? What was the jazz stuff you connected to when you were younger?

For me, the direction came from somewhere you might not expect. It was the music I heard on TV! Vince Guaraldi and the music for Charlie Brown. The Henry Mancini music for the Pink Panther movie and stuff like that. The Lalo Schifrin scores for Dirty Harry movies. Maybe it’s not jazz, but it is connected to jazz. It couldn’t have existed without jazz as a central element.

I got into hardcore jazz pretty early, but I remember seeing the Pat Metheny Group for the first time and being blown away. I was probably 12 or so. There was a light show. It was totally a rock and roll concert. But then he played free jazz as part of the set, too. Metheny has always bridged free jazz with melodic pop jazz.

As the parent of a teenager, I can confirm that television and film are still very very important in how music gets to young audiences.

It’s true. My generation knows the standards from Harry Connick doing When Harry Met Sally. They know those songs. You can play “It Had to Be You” and they’ll know the words.

Speaking of that I just heard The Bad Plus on a documentary about the Barnes Foundation called The Art of the Steal. Much of the score was by Phillip Glass, but your music fit nicely with Glass’ music and worked well with the story.

We think in cinematic terms for a lot of our tunes, and we keep hoping that someone will notice. It’s great to have music in a documentary, but come on, Wes Anderson, where are you? [chuckling]

Documentaries are something like jazz in that there are so many really great ones being done, but you’re not going to be able to see most of them in any sort of wide distribution.

Yes, how do you get major traction? I think that’s the question of our era. We have information overload.

And are you pretty much a democracy with equal say in the music and the business? Still one for all and all for one?

Yes, absolutely. It’s been a bit of a fight at times for us to be perceived as band and not me as a leader. But I am absolutely not the leader. It’s a collective. In fact, I probably write the least of all the band, though my compositions are part of the voice too. In terms of shaping all the details of the ensemble, it’s a collective. We try to be listed in alphabetical order as much as possible, but that’s a fight. People are so used to listing us as piano, bass and drums. If we do see it alphabetical, that’s really nice.

I interviewed Dave King several months ago about his performances series at the Walker Center and one of the interesting things he told me was that he is the “band namer.”

Yes, he named The Bad Plus. And I play in Buffalo Collision, which he also named.

Your audience is probably younger than that of most jazz trios. Is it a different audience and how is it different?

I think our music is for people who want to check out interesting music, not necessarily a jazz audience coming to the table with a critical agenda. That’s really freeing. We just played the Bowery Ballroom, with a pretty full house, for our record release party. It’s the kind of show we love to do, where we can feel connected to society and the street. That’s become endangered in some way. I’d love us to be an influence to other groups to show that you can be connected: That it’s something you can play for your girlfriend and she’ll dig it.

I think you already have been influential on younger groups. Over the last few years, we’ve received lots of CDs from young jazz groups that have been modeled on what The Bad Plus has done, for better or worse.

Some of it probably is for worse. In a way that was one of the reasons I started Do The Math, to show anyone curious how serious we are about the music. People sometimes come away with the wrong impression, that it’s easier than it really is. We take things really seriously. There are times in The Bad Plus when I’m playing an A major triad for two minutes. I think those are some of our greatest moments musically, but it may not be the right starting point.

To simply cover an alt-rock tune is really trivializing what you do.

It’s not any easier to appropriate rock as it is to appropriate bebop. Some things are easier, because playing a few power chords on a guitar is easier than playing the head on “Ornithology,” but lots of the technical and commitment questions remain essentially the same. Reid and Dave love rock music on a deep musical and spiritual level, and I'm sure they don't think playing in a rock band is "easier" than playing jazz.

It’s what you do with the songs that really count. On the new album, you play only originals. Was this an conscious thing or just something that happened?

Yes, it was absolutely intentional, because the previous album was all covers, with classical, country and rock music.

Did you write for them on the bandstand on the road or did you write them for or in the studio?

We’re privileged to have a work schedule, so most things were worked out in advance. “Super America” was brought to the studio by Dave and we learned that in a day and recorded it, but everything else was learned on the road.

The title tune sounded to me like a familiar pop tune. I think that’s a compliment.

A lot of the originals have a rock flavor to them, maybe even more so than the rock covers, where we deconstruct famous melodies. The originals are our opportunity to play it straight, so to speak.

There is something so pure about a piano trio. Is there any way to describe or analyze that symmetry?

Certainly the piano, bass and drums format is very special. I’m not sure how to break it down, but I will say for us it’s been important not to add any electric instruments. That's something other people have done really well, but for us, something about trying to wring it out of acoustic instruments remains important. And Dave plays a small kit, a traditional jazz kit. I play with Billy Hart and his kit is way bigger than Dave’s.

There remains something magical about a piano trio.

Part of the problem is that too often you only say the Keith Jarrett Trio or Bill Evans Trio, when the other guys in the band were really important to the effectiveness and sound. Bill Evans’ trios were more successful or less successful based not as much on the pianist but on who was playing with him. He was always pretty consistent. Keith, to his credit, advertises performances with the three names equally, which is only the way it should be. All three are innovators. All three are significant voices.

Who are some of your favorite piano trios? Would that include the Bill Evans Trio?

Actually, I prefer Bill Evans’ playing with Miles Davis and on that Oliver Nelson record. For me the best Evans, other than on Kind of Blue, is on that Konitz/Marsh live album at the Half Note with Jimmy Garrison and Paul Motian. His playing is pretty spectacular on that. Some of my favorite trios are with Monk and Powell, where you had Max Roach or Roy Haynes or Art Blakey really making an impact on how those bands sounded, but the bass player didn't have quite as much room yet. Then you get Red Mitchell with Hampton Hawes and that’s a pretty big deal.

Someone who is very important to my development is Paul Bley. You immediately have to talk about Footloose! with Steve Swallow and Pete LaRoca. And then there’s that record with Gary Peacock and Paul Motian. Also there’s a lot of stuff with Barry Altschul, mostly with Peacock, but also stuff with Kent Carter or Mark Levinson or Swallow. All those for sure. Keith with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian is more important to whatever it is I’m thinking about than the stuff with Jack and Gary, though that is a great trio, of course. And seeing Brad Mehldau with Larry Grenadier and Jorge Rossy: that was influential. I was a bit older and less able to be influenced when Jeff [Ballard] took over the [drum] chair, but there really is a clear difference between those two trios even though Brad and Larry were always there. The difference between Jorge and Jeff is great.

That’s a good example of how the drummer can change the sound of a piano trio. Certainly Dave King with his unique approach has a large impact on the sound and approach of The Bad Plus.

I think that in most modern jazz the drummer is the most important musician. The compositional voice is also extremely important, but on most of the jazz I really love, you have to consider what the drummer is doing.

Although you’re from Minnesota, you’ve become a fixture on the NYC jazz scene for many years. Is your approach entirely different when you play with say Tootie Heath, with whom you recorded a live album (with bassist Ben Street) for Smalls Live?

Oh sure. It’s a completely different thing. I did a week with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian and I played with Tootie a couple of times. That’s jazz repertory with jazz tunes and no rehearsal. "What do we feel about this language at this moment?" Also, I go to school and try to study with these guys on the bandstand. Tootie is 75 and is an incredible musician with incredible knowledge. When that generation is gone, part of the knowledge will be gone. So I’m trying to warm myself at the fire with some of that heat that he can bring with that swing beat.

Swing will continue but it’s going to be a lot harder for swing on the planet when these guys are gone. I think if you at least got to hear Charlie Parker, you were different. Those of us who didn’t get to see him live, we missed something. Guys like Cedar Walton or Tootie Heath, who at least heard him and maybe even played with him a little, are a different thing.

There’s something about the way music sounds and feels live, much less what artists do differently live.

There’s a spiritual dimension that can’t be captured on tape.

Do you have a favorite place to see music in NYC? Is there a place that is like Bradley’s used to be – where piano players go to see each other and hang out?

The closest we have to that is probably Smalls. That’s one of the reasons I decided to do a live record there, to feel a part of that community. I’m not even sure if all the musicians there accept me as part of that community, but I guess it doesn’t matter, because I play sometimes and it’s always a blast.

Why wouldn’t they? Is it because you’re too old or too successful or …?

I don’t know if I paid my dues at Smalls the way some guys have. I hope they don’t feel that I’m a tourist. Spike Wilner [owner of Smalls] is great and we’re good friends. He’s a great piano player too. Speaking of jazz repertory, a real highlight for me was when we did this James P. Johnson Rent Party there to raise money for his tombstone. That’s the sort of thing I try to actively take part in and try to promote and do whatever I can. That was Spike’s deal, but I was happy to do whatever I could to help him.

It’s a direct way to pay back your ancestors in this music. And as a jazz musician, you really are part of a larger community.

That’s the way I feel about it. Especially if you’re a NYC jazz player. People like Charles Ives or some of the great classical composers totally did their own thing outside of society. But if you’re a New York jazz musician, you’re in those clubs, playing and hearing this music. And the musicians who played there before you have left something, and I try to honor that.

Do you have a favorite piano in a venue?

None of them are really that good. But, you know, I’ve heard all those records with Monk and Powell on the worst pianos in history and they sound incredible on them. So if they didn’t bother Monk or Powell, then I really shouldn’t let it bother me. If you’re playing classical music, that’s different. But the minute you put some drums in there and you’re in a club, are you there to play or not? Don’t complain about the piano.

What bands or musicians do you see coming up that are breaking new ground musically?

I recently heard a record by Sam Newsome called Blue Soliloquy. An incredible record. I was more inspired by this record than another record by a peer in a long time. And the French pianist Benoit Delbecq just put out a record with Jean-Jacques Avenel and Emile Biayenda. He’s definitely an influence on me and that trio has a great sound together. Then there are bands like Meshuggah who are taking prog rock and metal to a whole new level of intellectual thorniness. That’s the way you’re going to break through. You’re not going to break through with Benoit, that’s for the connoisseurs. The way you’re going to break through is by acknowledging the primacy of rock and the earthy need to be in your time.

That sort of crossover generally happens more when rock, pop or hip hop artists do it themselves, as opposed to jazz artists trying to be commercial.

For my generation, Dream of the Blue Turtleswas the record. You get that 16-bar Kenny Kirkland solo on the title track and it’s only 16 bars, but, man, it does perk you up and say, “What is that?” Dave King needs to make a list of all the "out jazz" moments on rock tunes he knows, like Mike Garson's wild piano on David Bowie's "I'm Deranged" from Lost Highway. He knows Don Cherry and Billy Drewes solos on pop records too -- there's more...

What’s next for The Bad Plus? Do you have a list of projects you’d like to do with the band?

We do have a new project that’s really big. We hope to record it if we like how it comes out, but first we have to play it: “The Rite of Spring” by Stravinsky at Duke University in March. We’re playing the whole thing more or less straight through, the three of us. It’s called “On Sacred Ground.” There’s this wonderful guy, Aaron Greenwald, who has commissioned several jazz guys, including Brian Blade and Jason Moran, to do things there. The classical music on For All We Care went pretty well and we did a little Stravinsky in that. So we decided to take on the big boy. There are about hundred years now of “Rite of Spring.” It’s one of the most important and influential pieces in music history. We’re going to try to highlight the prog rock and Duke Ellington aspects of “Rite of Spring” in our performance.

Who came up with that idea?

It was something that was kicked around. We listed a lot of ideas for Aaron as far as what we could do and that ended up as being the one chosen. It’s a lot of work, but not as much work as composing it! Our job is easy compared to what Stravinsky had to do.

Like a lot of working bands, you probably don’t rehearse a lot, but I suppose this is different.

For every sound check until March, it will be “Rite of Spring” time. I know what I’m doing at the moment: practicing "The Rite of Spring!"

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