The Bad Plus’ Dave King: Art & Accessibility

A smart, seamless blend of light and heat

Minneapolis native Dave King might use expressions like “Oh, my gosh,” “Every now and again” and “Ya know” more than your average jazz drummer, but when he sits down at the kit to play with the Bad Plus, his cadence is anything but quaint. Beyond that high-profile gig, King brings the same propulsive energy, fearless spirit of collaboration and breezy Midwestern sensibility to the indie-jazz trio Happy Apple, iconoclastic quartet Buffalo Collision and the Americana-infused quintet the Dave King Trucking Company, all of which he leads or co-leads and contributes to as a composer.

“The ideology is to be as creative as possible, to not riff, to try to be in the moment and be a person who hangs it out there,” King explains. “Sometimes it fails, but sometimes it’s really heavy.” On Trucking Company’s recent debut album, Good Old Light, King strikes a perfect balance of art and accessibility, layering a pastoral Joni Mitchell hominess with untethered experimentation that evokes everyone from Keith Jarrett to the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

King, 41, has collaborated with figures from all corners of the musical landscape, from Jeff Beck, Dead Prez to Kurt Rosenwinkel. In 2010 he expanded his blender-style jazz ethos to collaborate with himself on his debut solo record, Indelicate, playing original compositions on drums and overdubbed piano, his first instrument. Combining the cerebral and introspective with a shoot-first bravado, King always lets the overarching concept dictate his musical choices. It’s controlled chaos, but the mercurial drummer brings different ingredients to the table every time, depending on what the song dictates. This ranges from the smoldering intensity of the Bad Plus’ kaleidoscopic take on Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, to Buffalo Collision’s dizzying, white-noise forays into the harmonic abyss, to Good Old Light’s textured lyricism and drive-time effervescence.

“I try to make a song out of everything I’m doing, instead of just a vehicle for mack-daddy improvisation or complicated meta-metric stuff. But I don’t let the heat off just because something is simple,” King says. The rest of Trucking Company bears this sort of equilibrium out: Tenor saxophonists Chris Speed and Brandon Wozniak bring a lithe insistence that glides over Adam Linz’s pedal bass and the twangy dissonance of Erik Fratzke’s guitar. On the spiritual “I Am Looking for Strength,” King’s cymbals float over a minimalist horn riff that modulates and repeats, reminiscent of Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman.” Another highlight is “The Road Leads Home,” a probing polyrhythmic tune that explodes into a driving, free-for-all jam. “Playing with Dave makes you feel like each gig is the most important musical performance ever to exist in the eternity of music. Almost,” says Speed, who also praises King’s ironic wit, which informs much of his playing. “The fact that he is so positive about music making makes you believe it, too.”

Iverson touts King’s ability to make the spontaneous, unexpected move that takes the band in the most provocative rhythmic direction. “Dave is like Paul Motian or Ed Blackwell, idiosyncratic drummers who stamp everything they do with ‘This is how I play it’ rather than ‘This is how it usually is played,’” Iverson says.

The two first met in 1990 at an impromptu jam session at future Bad Plus bassist Reid Anderson’s house in Minnesota. Iverson was introverted, King affable and outgoing, but there was an indisputable psychic energy in the room. Yet even they never could have predicted how far they’d take the Bad Plus. “Maybe we’re not an 8X10 glossy photograph for everybody anymore,” King says, referring to the band’s much-hyped Columbia Records tenure of 2003-2005, when it became a jazz and pop sensation praised in the likes of Esquire. “But we never asked to be, and I think people realize that it’s not this guns-blazing, pop-show cover band,” King says. “We want to give the heaviest experience every time out without being the cool guys. We just want to lay it out there, emote it, and at the same time we all have this built-in Midwestern sort of aw-shucks thing going on.”

King always returns to the relative quiet of his roots in Minneapolis, where he lives with his wife and two children, a necessary respite from his busy touring schedule with the Bad Plus. The title of the trio’s most recent album, 2010’s Never Stop, serves as the group’s unofficial mantra. “It’s a band that gets in a van and plays creative music,” he says, showing typical humility. “If anybody wants to think about where we’re at, we’re the guys getting up in the morning and playing a show in Albany, and playing the next night in Endicott, and the next night in Northampton or wherever. Wherever we can play, that band will play.”

Originally published in November 2011

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