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The Bad Plus Is a Quartet, For Now

After more than two decades, the group has expanded to four members and no longer features a pianist

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The Bad Plus (photo: Cedric Pilard)
The Bad Plus: (from left) Reid Anderson, Dave King, Chris Speed, and Ben Monder (photo: Cedric Pilard)

Bassist Reid Anderson hits the opening riff alone—an elliptical motif in deep, earthy tones, repeated with pensive syncopation—as the Bad Plus commence their first set on a recent summer evening at the Blue Note in New York City. The solitary foreboding at the front of “Motivations II,” one of Anderson’s compositions on the group’s new self-titled album, “is one of my signature moves,” he admits later, laughing. But the music that follows, as the rest of the band comes in, is unlike anything this former piano-trio institution has played before.

Tenor saxophonist Chris Speed carries the prayer-like melody in long, straight peals like a telegraph message in all dashes, no dots, ringed with the arpeggiated picking and windy reverb of Ben Monder’s electric guitar. Drummer Dave King—Anderson’s friend since junior high school in suburban Minneapolis and his bandmate since they co-founded the Bad Plus in 2000 with pianist Ethan Iverson—presses against the poise with a storm of hissing cymbals and rock-slide snare rolls until Monder jacks up his volume, setting off a progressive-metal torrent of distorted fish-hook soloing. After Speed restores tuneful order, everyone gradually fades out as Anderson has the last word, still playing that sturdy, thoughtful math on his bass.

Welcome to the invigorating contradiction of the Bad Plus, one of the most enduring and acclaimed working bands in jazz, reborn for the second time in four years with an unexpected shift in instrumentation and a firm declaration of creative ownership. In 2021, Anderson and King chose to abandon the group’s original format following the departure that spring of pianist Orrin Evans, who replaced Iverson at the beginning of 2018. The new album with Speed and Monder—recorded within weeks of the new lineup’s first rehearsals and right after an official unveiling in September 2021 at Yoshi’s in Oakland, California—is called The Bad Plus to reflect the rhythm section’s argument that, at this point, “the Bad Plus is whatever we say it is,” as King puts it.

The prospects within that definition unfold at the Blue Note. On “Not Even Close to Far Off,” a King piece from The Bad Plus, his trance-funk drive with Anderson, Speed’s chant-like sax, and Monder’s glassy-treble guitar suggest the jubilant turmoil of Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time detonated inside the cathedral-rock scale of U2. Anderson’s drolly titled “You Won’t See Me Before I Come Back” starts out like an Afro-Cuban dance, peaking in a Monder solo that evokes the plaintive shredding of King Crimson’s Robert Fripp. The quartet also addresses nuggets from the trio songbook—Anderson’s rondo-style ballad “Dirty Blonde” from 2004’s Give; King’s ecstatically jagged “1972 Bronze Medalist” on the 2001 debut album also called The Bad Plus—with its own invention and assurance, blowing up expectations previously determined by piano, bass and drums.

“The language we were playing in wasn’t necessarily piano-trio,” King, 52, contends two days later in the band’s dressing room, reflecting on the Bad Plus’ long, golden era with Iverson (now a leader recording for the Blue Note label). “It would have felt restrictive without Ethan. It’s incredible how he was creating noise elements with one limb while the other was playing these articulated lines. We were flexing a personality more than an instrumentation.

“We are most certainly part of the jazz canon. [But we] rep another thing as well. We always have. And I don’t really know what that is.” –Dave King

“Now we have this guitarist who is capable of these sonic landscapes,” the drummer goes on, “and a sax player who is not a boss-tenor guy but an extremely thoughtful ensemble-type musician.” King—a stocky figure with tattoos running up both arms and an exuberant manner in conversation, especially when he’s defending the vision and integrity of the Bad Plus—claims they were “never a great-solos band. It was the idea of thinking as a group, blending all of these other ideas.” The Bad Plus “shows that we can still do it.”

“The medium is the message,” Anderson says of that title during his turn on the dressing-room sofa. The bassist, who turns 52 this October, is much like the instrument he plays: tall and broad with an unmistakable authority in his low, soft voice. “It’s a doubling down of the core philosophy. It’s about the way Dave and I drive the band and the atmosphere we create, encouraging the collaboration required to make this music.

“Because it’s not just straight-up jazz,” he insists. “It was never just that. And that’s part of the mission, to ask, ‘What else can it be?’”

The Bad Plus' original lineup (photo: Alan Nahigian)
The Bad Plus’ original lineup. (From left) David King, Reid Anderson, Ethan Iverson (photo: Alan Nahigian)

Monder has known and played with Anderson for longer than there has been a Bad Plus. The New York-born guitarist—a veteran leader and sideman who holds the six-string chair in the Maria Schneider Orchestra and scored major rock cachet when he appeared on David Bowie’s final album, 2016’s Blackstar—first recorded with Anderson in 1999 on the bassist’s solo album, The Vastness of Space. And Monder, 50, was in the audience for the Bad Plus’ first live show in New York, at the Brooklyn club Roulette in December 2001.

“It wasn’t a standard piano-trio gig at all,” Monder recalls with a wry smile, sitting with Speed upstairs at the Blue Note. “They were really doing some experimental shit, like their infamous version of ‘My Funny Valentine’ with Ethan singing from underneath the piano.”

The guitarist also remembers the odd way Anderson invited him to join the Bad Plus when they spoke on the phone in July 2021: “He said, ‘Orrin has left our band, and we’ve decided we’re going to make this a project where we play with our friends.’ I wasn’t exactly sure what he meant. I thought, ‘Maybe I’m joining for one record, and they’re going to have this revolving cast of characters.’”

There was precedent for that idea. The Bad Plus, with Iverson, recorded a 2015 album with saxophonist Joshua Redman and a 2009 covers project, For All I Care, featuring vocalist Wendy Lewis. Live collaborators over the years have included guitarist Bill Frisell and the British horn and keyboard player Django Bates.

“I think they went through different stages,” Speed says of a similar conversation he had with King. The saxophonist, 55, a native of Seattle, has worked with the drummer for more than two decades. King’s been a member of the Chris Speed Trio; Speed’s played with King’s bands outside the Bad Plus; and they’ve both teamed up with Anderson and saxophonist Tim Berne in the Ornette Coleman/Julius Hemphill repertory group Broken Shadows. “Dave was talking about it like a workshop,” Speed goes on, “he and Reid with different duos, naming all their friends. Then I didn’t hear anything. In retrospect, it would have been a nightmare organizing all of those people.”

“Certainly,” King exclaims when asked if he and Anderson considered ending the Bad Plus after Evans gave his notice on a trip to the pianist’s hometown, Philadelphia, to film performances for streaming during the pandemic. “There was a month there where it was like, ‘Maybe … ’”

Evans was “put in a tough position,” admits Anderson, who met the former in the ’90s while studying classical bass at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music and played on Evans’ 2000 album Listen to the Band. Instead of taking over a driver’s seat in the Bad Plus as the dominant chordal and soloing instrument, Evans walked into a dynamic where the guys in the engine room, Anderson and King, had effectively become the group’s primary writers and conceptualists.

Anderson concedes the analogy and the obstacles that come with it. “It’s a challenge to the general conception of how jazz is made and presented,” he acknowledges. “If you’re a pretty good saxophonist or pianist, everybody is willing to accept you as a leader. Record companies are like, ‘If you want to make a record … ’ It’s not the same for bass and drums, especially as Dave and I are not writing to feature our instruments. We write songs for a band to play.”

Like Evans, who recorded the first of his two albums with the Bad Plus, 2018’s Never Stop II, before that lineup even played live, Speed and Monder were thrown into the deep end, booked into Yoshi’s and the sessions for The Bad Plus with just three rehearsals to master nearly two dozen pieces. “That was supposed to be enough,” Monder says with a dry chuckle. “Then Reid sits us down, a little band conference: ‘Dudes, we’re completely not ready to do this. We either cancel the gigs or book three more rehearsals.’” King, Monder adds, was more explicit: “He pulled that thing of, ‘I know Reid and I can go in there and just kill this gig. But we have to make sure you guys can be on that same level.’”

“I felt the pressure,” Speed confesses. “This is not like some new startup: ‘Let’s go improvise at the IBeam [in Brooklyn] and see what happens.’ But it’s not like they expected us to be anything but ourselves. They just wanted it to be good: ‘This has to fucking rock.’”

With the extra rehearsal time, the quartet was in fighting trim for Yoshi’s (“The gigs went great, better than I could have hoped,” Monder says), then recorded so much material for The Bad Plus that it was almost a double album. Anderson and King ultimately kept the record to eight tracks, running the gamut of mood and attack from the bassist’s ghostly march “Stygian Pools” to King’s furious nonstop improvising behind the front line in “Sick Fire.” “Oh, yeah, he does that a lot,” Monder cracks when reminded of a similar passage during that set at the Blue Note. “He’s even said, ‘You notice there are no drum solos in this band? That’s because I’m always soloing.’”

“If it comes down to it and you had to put us in a category, we are most certainly part of the jazz canon,” King says. “The new band—all of us come from an improvisational background. We have all played different types of jazz. But the influences—they push out the corners of what people think of as jazz.”

The Bad Plus, he argues, “rep another thing as well. We always have. And I don’t really know what that is.”

The Bad Plus: Orrin Evans-Piano, Reid Anderson-Bass, Dave King-Drums (photo: Alan Nahigian)
The Bad Plus: Orrin Evans-Piano, Reid Anderson-Bass, Dave King-Drums (photo: Alan Nahigian)

It was only fragments of music in a radio ad for a Minneapolis concert by the Canadian hard-rock trio Rush. But “even with the talking over it, I was like, ‘What is this?’” Anderson says, recalling an early, pivotal encounter with the instrument that became his life. “I was immediately drawn to that sound and definitely played the bass because of [Rush’s] Geddy Lee.

“But from there,” he says, “your world expands, and you see what else is out there. Eventually I made my way to Ornette Coleman.”

King—who started on piano, then took up the drums in the fifth grade—grew up with the same swing in extremes: studying his father’s jazz and classical records while running around to arena-rock shows by Rush and U2 and local clubs to see Minneapolis punk icons Hüsker Dü and the Replacements, often with Anderson and another school friend, pianist Craig Taborn. “To me, jazz represented a further form of indie music,” King says now. “It was hard for me to see the walls between Living Colour and the Keith Jarrett trio, who were like gangsters playing standards. They were one and the same.”

Anderson and Iverson met in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where the bassist was attending the University of Wisconsin and the pianist, a decade younger, was in high school. They and King first played together in 1989, in the living room of Anderson’s parents—“a not-very-impressive meeting,” he says. When the three tried again in 2000, their group empathy amid individual contrasts—disparate writing styles (Iverson studied with both Fred Hersch and the classical pianist/educator Sophia Rosoff); iconoclastic taste in covers (ABBA, Nirvana, electronica artist the Aphex Twin); a mutually disruptive sense of humor, especially in song titles—kicked in to improbable, mainstream effect, including a three-album stay at Columbia Records and forays into rock clubs and festivals.

“We thought of it like Fleetwood Mac, how they had three singers in the ’70s or three guitar players in the ’60s,” King says. “Each of us had an idiosyncratic—for lack of a better word—style of writing, so each tune had its own life.” Anderson, he continues, “as a way of ordering chords and melodic statements that is super-sophisticated, accessible on one level, but then he drops some hyper-thorny situation in there.” The drummer cites Anderson’s “People Like You” on 2010’s Never Stop: “It almost sounds like a candle-waving arena-rock tune, but then something pulls it back at the last second.”

Anderson—who, like King, composes at the piano—points to the “pop sensibility” lurking in the angularity of the drummer’s writing. “It’s a tricky balance, that chaos and coherence. And there’s a process to go through in learning his music: ‘What the hell is going on?’ But there’s always a logic to it.”

“If you’re a pretty good saxophonist or pianist, everybody is willing to accept you as a leader. It’s not the same for bass and drums.” –Reid Anderson

The bassist acknowledges that some older Bad Plus tunes are unlikely to be played by the quartet, such as “Physical Cities,” a nine-minute tumult on 2007’s Prog. “I don’t know that we couldn’t do it,” he avers, “but it would be difficult. There’s something about the percussive aspect of the piano.” Other pieces keep coming around; “Dirty Blonde,” for example (which was previously recut for the album with Redman), and “Big Eater,” which was first released on 2003’s These Are the Vistas, was aired live with Evans, and was the second number with Speed and Monder at the Blue Note.

“Dave was saying that ‘1972 Bronze Medalist’ has developed such a different character,” Monder remarks in the dressing room. “It was supposed to be this medium-tempo, quasi-groove tune. And we’re making it this intense thing. Like everything else, the character has shifted. It doesn’t serve the same function it used to in the set, so we’ve got to find something else to bring the temperature down.” Ironically, it has been “easier to put together the new music,” Speed says, “because there was no precedent—the precedent being the actual band” now called the Bad Plus.

The newest members of The Bad Plus, Ben Monder (on left) and Chris Speed (photo: Cedric Pilard)
The newest members of The Bad Plus, Ben Monder (on left) and Chris Speed (photo: Cedric Pilard)

At the end of the Blue Note set, as he introduces the members of the group and the final song—“The Dandy,” also the closing number on The Bad Plus—Anderson reminds the audience that there are albums for sale at the merchandise counter upstairs. They’re “old records,” he warns—the two releases with Evans, because the quartet’s album won’t be out for another two months. But, the bassist quickly adds with a grin, “they’re very good.”

“It’s weird to be here with this band and still selling the records with Orrin,” Anderson says. “But we’re in the discovery phase, finding this exponential curve. It’s very participatory music, even if it’s minimalistic on the surface. We have some tunes where it’s just the melody over and over again. But there’s always room for other stuff. And the more confidence everybody has to interject commentary—or withhold commentary—the stronger it becomes.”

King says he and Anderson have talked with Speed and Monder about writing for the new lineup. “There’s an open invitation, for sure,” the guitarist confirms. “The next record—that will be the time,” Speed suggests.

But, the drummer notes, “the whole point was Reid and I had music ready, to tell the story of this new band. We changed to Orrin and kept it going. Now we’ve changed to Ben and Chris, and they’re down for the cause. We have a large, referential landscape in this band. We let everything in. And here’s that new sound.”

“I have a strong sense—and I think this is our strength as well—that we’re still outsiders,” Anderson says. “And we have an outsider’s drive to prove ourselves.”

David Fricke

David Fricke has written about music for more than four decades for publications including Rolling Stone, MOJO, the late great British weekly Melody Maker and now JazzTimes. He is a DJ at Sirius XM Radio, a Grammy-nominated writer of album liner notes and a three-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in music journalism.