The Bad Plus: Goodbye, Hello

David Fricke says farewell to the original Bad Plus during their final Village Vanguard run—and looks forward to the band’s bold new era


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It was a familiar parade. On Dec. 27, the founding members of the Bad Plus—pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King—walked single file along the upper banquette at New York’s Village Vanguard toward the stage for their first set of the evening. They were dressed much like I first saw them at the club in February of 2003—the week Columbia Records released the group’s major-label debut, These Are the Vistas—and many other nights there and around town for 15 years. Somehow, the Bad Plus—to me the most compelling, reliably challenging and singularly cohesive trio in 21st-century jazz—always looked like they’d just arrived from three different bands.

There was King, the punk-rock laborer in a checked shirt with sleeves rolled to the elbows, revealing the tattoos running up each arm; Anderson in more casual attire, with the professorial beard that looked a little whiter at each gig I took in; and Iverson in his characteristic dark suit. On this night, Iverson sported an informal twist under his jacket, a T-shirt with a boxing logo, and appeared to be an extra step behind the others, as though reluctantly taking his place on the bandstand.

Iverson only had four more nights to go. Last April, the Bad Plus announced that, at the end of the year, the pianist was leaving the group he established with King and Anderson in Minneapolis in 2000. By September, King and Anderson were in a Brooklyn studio recording Never Stop II, the first album with their new pianist, the acclaimed Philadelphian Orrin Evans. Spending the week approaching New Year’s Eve at the Vanguard had become a tradition for the Bad Plus. This stand was Iverson’s last—a final holiday round for the New York faithful. It was also an acknowledgement, in its repertoire and its concentrated reprise of original strengths, that an exceptional adventure in piano-trio brotherhood had been stuck at a crossroads for some time.

On the 27th, the group played no new material in either set—a first for me at a Bad Plus show—and no covers, drawing a red line through the interpretations of Nirvana, ABBA and Black Sabbath that once drew substantial rock-press attention, including mine. I wrote the first of several pieces on the Bad Plus for Rolling Stone after that 2003 engagement, where I saw them detonate Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as nuclear Monk and find a new bloom, like a Bill Evans ballad, in “Flim” by Aphex Twin, an English electronica artist.

In retrospect, I can see the holding pattern in Iverson’s last album with the Bad Plus, 2016’s It’s Hard, which was all covers—delightfully eclectic (Kraftwerk, Johnny Cash, Yeah Yeah Yeahs) yet regressive, a band of determined composers stuck for a new way forward together. That November, not too long after the record came out, Iverson told the other two he was ready to leave. That helps explain the set list at an otherwise dynamite outing that month at Rough Trade NYC, a Brooklyn rock club with a properly booming PA. The trio played just a handful of nuggets from It’s Hard, reverting largely to their own vintage hits, so to speak, going back to Vistas.

Iverson, Anderson and King play out their groundbreaking union at the Vanguard in December (photo by Alan Nahigian)
Ethan Iverson, Reid Anderson and Dave King (from left) play out their groundbreaking union at the Vanguard in December (photo by Alan Nahigian)

Likewise, at the Vanguard, King, Anderson and Iverson cycled back through their history as a consortium of separate but equal writers, at once serving and propelling each other in thoroughly bonded performance and surprisingly compact improvisations. In the first set on the 27th, Anderson’s “You Are,” from 2010’s Never Stop, began as a frenetic hard-bop competition between the bass and drums. Iverson comped sharply against that interplay, patient and observing, before soloing across the fray with a precise, stabbing fury, then handing the limelight to King’s eruptive collage of accents and rolls.

Iverson also sat by as Anderson opened the pianist’s title song to 2014’s Inevitable Western with a solo-bass meditation that led, like a walk up a basement staircase, to Iverson’s intricate, winding keyboard figure. The effect was oblique yet poignant, like the quietly moving strangeness of the piano in many Randy Newman ballads, until King abruptly announced his entrance, dropping a cluster of percussion on his floor tom. King’s “Epistolary Echoes” was an actual groove—the three in clear, funky unity—while Anderson’s “Prehensile Dream,” a Columbia oldie from 2005’s Suspicious Activity?, was a circular, mounting intensity that always reminded me of both modally spiraling Coltrane and the angular-riff hypnosis of King Crimson. I’d just seen that progressive-metal institution in New York a few weeks earlier. At the Vanguard, I wondered again why, with Rush and Yes in their playbook, the Bad Plus never took a crack at Crimson’s “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part Two.”

“We are predominantly an original music band,” King insisted in 2003, when I interviewed him for Rolling Stone. “There’s definitely this cerebral thing happening” in the group’s writing and covers, the drummer said, but also “this strong, visceral thing we’re very attached to. I think the most powerful jazz that’s ever been created, the classic John Coltrane Quartet, had that idea of huge, human involvement in the music, not just relying on chops or tools—harmonic reinvention, polyrhythm.

“It’s in there if you want that,” King said of the Bad Plus. The band was also “as simple as people giving their all.”

 

Fourteen years later, Anderson stopped by my table at the Vanguard before the first set to say hello. He affirmed what I had seen in some press reports on the split—that Orrin Evans was his and King’s only choice for the piano seat, adding that he had known and recorded with Evans since the ’90s, when Anderson studied at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. The bassist also said this: The Bad Plus might not have continued if Evans—a longtime bandleader in his own right, in a variety of settings including the collective trio Tarbaby and his formidable Captain Black Big Band—declined the offer.

Anderson and I tried to think of analogues to his band’s situation—a profound change in personnel undertaken while keeping the instrumentation and vision intact. He suggested the hard-rock band AC/DC and their fateful change in singers after Bon Scott’s death in 1980. I countered with Jimi Hendrix’s shift in bassists from Noel Redding to Billy Cox, but quickly conceded that neither was a composing figure. “I don’t know,” Anderson said in the soft, even voice with which he played emcee that night, introducing his bandmates and the songs with droll asides. “Maybe this is unique.”

The strains leading to Iverson’s departure were not. Last November, while I was interviewing Eric Clapton about a new documentary on his life, he recalled a moment in the film from his psychedelic youth: the guitarist in full improvising flight with the blues-rock power trio Cream at the Fillmore West, in San Francisco. “It was so good; we were playing so well together,” he said. “Watching that, I thought, ‘If only they could have found a way to resolve their conflict,’” an allusion to the infamous enmity between bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker.

Iverson, at the time of his announcement, addressed the issue of band tensions to JazzTimes vet and WBGO correspondent Nate Chinen with this example from the late years of the Modern Jazz Quartet: each member of that musically empathic guild sitting in an opposing corner of a plane’s first-class cabin, jealously guarding his private space. “Reid and Dave are friends of mine for life,” Iverson went on. But their relationships, after 17 years, were not “as fun and as cool as they were at the beginning.”

Anderson and King were the initial axis, friends and bandmates starting in junior high school in Minneapolis. “Reid and I came up to jazz from prog-rock through fusion,” King told me, then moved “backwards into Coltrane, Ornette and Miles.” Iverson and Anderson met in Eau Claire, where the pianist was in high school and Anderson was studying at the University of Wisconsin. They and King first played together in 1989—“Young and dumb apprentice musicians,” Iverson cracks in his liner notes to the Bad Plus’ eponymous first album, released in 2001 by Fresh Sound New Talent. “A tape of that session would be great blackmail material.”

Iverson and Anderson headed East in the ’90s, playing in various groups, often together. (Iverson also studied privately with pianist Fred Hersch and classical mentor Sophia Rosoff.) King worked in Los Angeles for a time. Together again in Minneapolis, they unveiled that reconstruction of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” at their live debut there in May of 2000. Iverson didn’t know the tune or band. He and Anderson had strong classical backgrounds, King said in 2003, while the rhythm section had that bottom line in rock: “But we all meet in the jazz center. It’s something we’ve all played throughout our lives, Ethan being an encyclopedia of it.”

In recent years, as friendships receded and stasis set in, Iverson’s exploration of jazz history and his energy for musical and cultural analysis spilled outside the Bad Plus; see his collaborations with such greats as bassist Ron Carter, drummer Tootie Heath, saxophonist Lee Konitz and especially drummer Billy Hart, and his fiercely passionate, at times controversial blog Do the Math. Ironically, on Jan. 2, two days after Iverson’s last set with King and Anderson at the Vanguard, Evans opened as a headliner at New York’s Jazz Standard, splitting a run between Captain Black and a sextet. Two weeks later, he was onstage in St. Louis, Mo., with the Bad Plus. The band’s first two sets there featured Anderson and King tunes, plus two Evans pieces from Never Stop II. The next day, Anderson confirmed that the new trio would not play Iverson’s music “moving forward.”

Reid Anderson, Dave King and Orrin Evans of the Bad Plus
Reid Anderson, Dave King and Orrin Evans of the reborn Bad Plus (photo by Shervin Lainez)

In some ways, Evans’ arrival is business uninterrupted. As before, the trio is a joining of two long-standing associations (Anderson with King and Evans, respectively). Like the Fresh Sound album, which was recorded after only a few gigs, Never Stop II was cut as an act of faith in the future, in this case following a handful of rehearsals.

And like 2010’s Never Stop—the first Bad Plus album consisting entirely of original material—Never Stop II features all new compositions, the writing split between the three members and flaunting a more fluid exchange of leadership. There is a shift in character, too, with Evans’ brawny, bop-rooted force and deep-blues vernacular replacing Iverson’s classical grounding and pointillistic attack. Evans’ rolling spins through and around the melody are a buoyant counterweight to the dark, dance-y urgency of Anderson’s “Trace.” King begins soloing less than a minute into Evans’ jubilant, disjointed “Commitment,” and when Evans takes control again in his piano break, King and Anderson lock into a chase sequence underneath that speaks to their sturdy, fundamental kinship.

One thing that left with Iverson was his part in the Bad Plus’ deadpan humor, evident in the song titles (including his “Cheney Piñata” and King’s “Keep the Bugs Off Your Glass and the Bears Off Your Ass,” both played on Dec. 27) and super-dry stage patter, like the jazz version of a Steven Wright routine. In our 2003 conversation, King told a story about a memorable Vanguard performance of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.” “Ethan read the lyrics first,” the drummer said, “which are just out. The crowd is like, ‘What are they doing?’ Then he starts this piano intro, like Stravinsky. All of a sudden, we hit it.” King mimicked the song’s stomping riff. The music “just exploded,” he said, laughing. “The crowd didn’t know what to do.”

We Bad Plus fans may not see the likes of that again. But we have a whole new set of vistas to look forward to.

[top photo of King, Anderson and Iverson taken by Alan Nahigian in the Village Vanguard’s kitchen/office area in December]

Read David Fricke’s JT column on the rise of Kamasi Washington

Read Bill Milkowski’s controversial JT takedown of the Bad Plus, from 2004