The Bad Plus is about equally likely to play Nirvana or play Stravinsky. But mostly they play their brand of up-to-the-minute jazz. Will Layman looks at the new recording by the Bad Plus, Never Stop, discusses the band’s history, and talks it over with the group’s pianist, Ethan Iverson.
Unlikely Jazz Heroes
When a band emerging out of the Midwest consists of a pianist with classical leanings, an acoustic bass player, and a renegade drummer who reputedly plays too loud, is it likely to become a brilliant jazz trio?
The Bad Plus either seems exactly like your cup of tea, or they rub you the wrong way -- at least that's how it seemed among self-identified "jazz fans" after their major label debut on Columbia in 2003, These Are The Vistas. While the notion of developing rock era tunes into "jazz standards" was hardly new, it still struck a nerve that Ethan Iverson, Reid Anderson and Dave King chose to cover Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and Aphex Twin's "Flim".
Jazz purists reacted with suspicion and earplugs. Too loud, this drummer. Why don't they swing? Is a Blondie song really worth improvising on?
But plenty of people not necessarily conversant with Bud Powell or Bill Evans got excited. In fact, The Bad Plus's "Teen Spirit" was a much wilder ride than the original: moody but also dissonant, with splashing cymbals, clattering collisions of time signatures, weird note choices worthy of Ornette Coleman, piano strings played directly like a harp, and a thunderous final two minutes that is more rock-and-roll than almost anything you'll hear featuring an electric guitar.
The Bad Plus, in this coming-out party, served up a sense of adventure that rock rarely offers. Many folks who came for the novelty to "Teen Spirit" stayed for the thrill of instrumental music -- and acoustic jazz for goodness sakes! -- that was more of alternative to the mundane than most putative rock rebellion.
The Bad Plus Sound
In fact, The Bad Plus was hardly alone in pushing their music into a thrilling territory where "jazz", instrumental improvised music with origins in the blues, mingled freely with rock and European classical music, atonality and serious backbeat. Plenty of other musicians were in the hunt, and what made this trio different from the start was simply that they sounded like a band from the beginning. They were recognizable as The Bad Plus no matter what they were playing.
Covering Rush's "Tom Sawyer" in a thunderous manner? Well, that was obviously The Bad Plus. But on a bass-line-driven original "Frog and Toad" it was still plainly them: capturing a fluid sense of classical chamber music even as the piano line started to spiral up into ecstatic improvisation. Song titles like "The Empire Strikes Backwards" hinted at the sense of play in the band, and the cover of the reasonably traditional "This Guy's In Love With You" reminded us that despite the sense of humor, the band wasn't a gag but a set of musicians with a distinct sense of beauty.
Including singer Wendy Lewis in their line-up on 2009's For All I Care was arguably a very Bad Plus move. Unknown, mostly, beyond the local Midwest indie-rock scene, Lewis was a celebrity sit-in and sang a program of rock covers with a clarity and sincerity that was not ironic. But more than that, the band alternated these tracks ("Barracuda", "Comfortably Numb", "How Deep Is Your Love?") with trio versions of 20th century classical pieces by Ligeti Babbitt and Stravinsky. Talk about a range of unusual covers.
So, it makes sense that 2010 brought a new Bad Plus disc that is all-original, their first ever. Never Stop is, if anything, a more immediately appealing set of music than For All I Care, despite the lack of familiar tunes. If the cover versions of pop songs sometimes reach for transformative dissonance, then these original songs are often treated to immediate and uncluttered arrangements that speak directly. The title track, "Never Stop", is a melody consisting of repeated notes, backed by a martial drum feeling of thumping kick-drum hits. It's a bashing song that develops (over only 3:51) a delicious complexity in texture and polyrhythm.
"People Like You" is a languorous ballad that is, nevertheless, driven by a soulful snare hit on "3". This tune allows pianist Ethan Iverson to build an improvisation from the ground up, placing one note after another with leisurely grace and rich melodic invention until he is finally allowing cascades of notes to crumble around the melody, now expressed by his left hand. It is a tune that might have been conceived by Keith Jarrett in the 1970s, but by the time it is complete, the accompaniment of Anderson and King takes over as the unique sound of The Bad Plus.
Perhaps the highlight of Never Stop is the exuberant "Beryl Loves to Dance". The colors of harmony burst like sunshine in the main theme, with the rhythm section pounding out a rock beat that is nevertheless as elastic as any jazz groove. And this is where The Bad Plus shows what they probably do best -- to expand the definition of swing to include a variety of creative backbeats. Unlike the jazz-rock fusion of the '70s or the smooth jazz-funk of the last 25 years, this incarnation of rocking jazz is as rubbery and rich as Ellington.
An Interview with Bad Plus Pianist Ethan Iverson
PopMatters: I'm always been exhausted by "jazz controversies", including the alleged controversy over The Bad Plus going back a few years. "They're too loud!" The classic: "They don't swing!" The tiresome: "They're just a gimmick ...". I can only assume that the band (a) never thought about this stuff, (b) stopped thinking about it long ago, or (c) still find it kind of hilarious. Which is it?
Ethan Iverson: We were first taken aback at the controversy but then realized it was an honor. I don't think we give it much thought today.
PopMatters: Never Stop is your first program that contains only original compositions, which seems like something that shouldn't matter all that much to the band. You have all been writing plenty over the years, plus your treatments of standards and pop songs have always struck me as being radical enough that, in their arrangements, they were virtually new compositions. Was this programmatic decision made very deliberately or otherwise? In what way does it "matter" and in what way does it not?
Ethan Iverson: Our last album, For All I Care, was entirely covers. So this was a natural balancer. A populist conception of us as "the band who plays Nirvana covers" might help us fill seats but is fundamentally incorrect -- we've always had about 75-90% original music in the book. Our next project, incidentally, is a "cover" -- the complete Rite of Spring by Stravinsky! We premiere that at Duke University in March.
PopMatters: Your last album was noted for including an "indie-rock" vocalist and covering a broad range of pop songs. But it seemed equally intriguing to me that you counter-programmed the rock with instrumental tunes from the world of contemporary classical music -- which didn't get written about all that much. Can you talk about the consonance in that contrast, how it fit together for the band, and how the group conceived of this double-program?
Ethan Iverson: Well, the title is kind of a clue: we "CARE" about "ALL" of this disparate music. In a way we try to bring both sides, populism and high-brow, to everything we play. Nice catch on the absence of discussion about the classical covers -- probably because people don't know the references. However I think that a few fans might have checked out Ligeti a bit more because of us -- at least I hope so!
PopMatters: Speaking of contrasting repertoires, can you tell us how the band (or just you) may approach these varying sources of tunes differently? Even putting aside the question of different genres of music, I wonder how you may differently approach songs with lyrics versus those without, songs with complex changes versus those without, ballads versus up-tempo, and so on.
Ethan Iverson: A lot of the time there's almost a political or sociological reason for doing certain pieces. Roger Miller is pretty different from Pink Floyd! I'm pretty sure we are always looking for clarity and the sounds that make sense.
PopMatters: For decades, at least in jazz, music that was striving for an audience had to be harmonically consonant. So the virtual definition of "avant-garde" music was its degree of dissonance -- the degree to which the soloist played "out". The Bad Plus seems to defy that distinction -- you play out and in, and it would seem to make no difference to your audience. Is that just a condition of jazz today, that audiences care less about harmonic dissonance and maybe even find that it cuts some of the "cheesiness" of classic jazz and makes the music more acceptable?
Ethan Iverson: Interesting question! I do think "noise rock" has been a big ear-opener for our audiences -- we are pretty delicate in comparison with a lot that is out there. One of our references is the Keith Jarrett quartet with Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden, and Paul Motian. They played squalling free jazz next to simple rumbas, etc.
PopMatters: Let me ask about a single interesting song from the new disc. "My Friend Metatron" contains a complex melody, not immediately hum-able, and it has a complex structure that would not be out of place on, say, an Andrew Hill record from the 1960s -- tricky harmonic shifts and series of different rhythmic feels that are the farthest thing from a rock backbeat. At the same time, there is something compelling and very listenable about that track: it doesn't go on-and-on with a string of solos, it proceeds in ADD-friendly episodes of sound and has just enough hooky moments to grab you. Can you talk about that tune (and the Hebrew-inspired title)?
Ethan Iverson: Thanks so much for listening closely! I appreciate the comment about not having too many long solos. Sometimes we stretch, but sometimes it is better to just play the song. Our "Metatron" is an archangel who protects chakras. Prog rock may be a helpful reference: odd-meters meet pop hooks. Love Andrew Hill, of course.
PopMatters: "Bill Hickman at Home" is another intriguing tune -- one that you wrote. It seems a bit rare for The Bad Plus to do a tune that has a lazy blues lope to it, but then you've written into it some very Bad Plus elements, such as the section that has the bass and left-hand of the piano playing suddenly in a slower, dragged time. In addition, it seems like the production gives the piano a different sound on this track. What else about this tune makes it something we probably wouldn't have heard on a jazz trio album 30 years ago?
Ethan Iverson: We got the piano sound the old-fashioned way: just mic'ed-up a trashed upright abandoned in a corner of the studio. You're right, this is pretty retro, with a full chorus of bass and piano solos. One of my clichés is that "dragged" 5 over 4, but I think they even did that sometimes 30 years ago -- it's on Bill Evans's New Jazz Conceptions for sure. Maybe the cinematic element is most distinctive. Hickman choreographed and drove in the car chases in the movies Bullitt and The French Connection.
PopMatters: It seems to me that improvised music is very healthy in 2010, and pianists or piano-based groups seem to be creating some of the freshest work out there: your band, Jason Moran's group, Vijay Iyer's trio, Robert Glasper's group. All these musicians seem to be finding fresh ways to make the tradition meld organically with contemporary sounds. Any theories about this jazz piano revolution? Any feelings about the health of improvised music, generally, in 2010?
Ethan Iverson: Those are all great pianists, but I wish more of them would have the courage to take their name off the marquee and be in a band instead. That is really the way I want to be influential: form bands. I'm glad you think the scene is healthy, though! It's hard to say when you are inside it.
PopMatters: For all the great music, it seems like its getting tougher to make a living at this, even as the cost and means of production allow musicians to control their own product more completely. How does the economic lay of the land in jazz bode for the future -- and how is The Bad Plus handling that?
Ethan Iverson: These are in troubled times for sure. The Bad Plus seems to be on pretty solid ground. Not a day goes by where I don't thank the maker that we got a chance to break through; we are truly privileged and blessed.
I try to give back to my community by blogging about music that I love. It appears that passion and enthusiasm are still valid currencies. Charles Ives said something like: the first real music will be made when the last person to make a dime from it was gone and gone forever. Maybe he was right!