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Music with a Capital "M": An Interview With Ethan Iverson of the Bad Plus

Photo: Josh Goleman

The Bad Plus may be known for their revisionist covers of pop songs, but pianist Ethan Iverson proudly reflects on jazz’s past and shares his hopes and fears about its future.

The Bad Plus may not always play by the rules, but that doesn't mean they haven't come up with their own rules.

The limber, Minneapolis-born trio of bassist, drummer, and pianist have played on the same stage for 15 years, and while they've undeniably grown as instrumentalists, many things have remained constant. Since their inception, Ethan, drummer Dave King, and bassist Reid Anderson have tackled an eclectic mix of cover songs and original compositions.

Their fascination with pop by way of jazz all started at an early gig when, for lack of a set's worth original material, they intuitively opted to play, not standards, but rather '90s anthem "Smells Like Teen Spirit". Though as Ethan stresses, capturing the spirit of the original piece is hardly their main concern. The Bad Plus' focus is to deconstruct and reassemble familiar musical artifacts from their own perspective. So don't mistake them for no house band.

In the past, they've taken on Bowie, Blondie, Radiohead, Rush, and... Igor Stravinsky? In 2014, we spoke with the band about their complete overhaul of the revolutionary and riot-inciting, Rite of Spring, one of their most ambitious projects to date. Most recently, the Bad Plus recorded It's Hard, an album exclusively of covers, featuring reworked classics by Prince and Ornette Coleman, among others.

Understandably, Ethan speaks with great poise about the band he calls home. When I asked how Dave approached the drum part in the ordinarily drum-less Rite of Spring, he answered: "Well, he's a genius that applied everything he knew about music to figure out what would work." And about his bassist: "I think pretty soon you'll be seeing some brilliant Reid Anderson albums of his own electronic music."

The three have many decades of combined experience in improvisational, rock, electronic, and classical circuits and have collaborated with numerous luminaries. They approach each project with respect, proving masters of domains both somber and frantic, refusing to stay in their seats. Yet despite the intricate and restive arrangements, it remain one of the more palatable jazz groups I've ever heard. Far from esoteric, as avant-garde jazz tends to be, the Bad Plus aims for clarity. "I don't think obviousness is unhip," Ethan says: "If you listen to what we're doing with the songs on It's Hard, there shouldn't be any doubt about why we're doing the songs or why we're playing them the way we are."

When I spoke with Ethan, the Bad Plus was halfway through a six-show series at New York's Blue Note Jazz Club. He spoke with composure, because with more than a dozen Bad Plus records under his belt, six consecutive shows probably isn't such a big deal. Heck, they've survived digitization of the industry, the Sony rootkit scandal, and an age in which jazz might as well be pronounced dead. Still, they've emerged as creative and badass as ever. In answer to what's next for the band, Ethan replied: "I know what the next thing is going to be, but I don't know if I'm allowed to announce it yet. Let's just keep the focus on this record." He laughed, "Christ man, we already did a whole record of covers for us to talk about."

* * *

Your group is known for its creative interpretations of popular songs, and while you've produced plenty of original material over the years, your upcoming album, It's Hard, contains only cover songs. I'm curious, have you guys just run out of ideas? You can tell me if you have.

[laughing] Now that's just not true.

I'll have to take your word for it. I will say that, to me, these songs don't sound worlds apart from the songs you were playing on your early records. What would you say differentiates this record from previous ones?

We've been playing our instruments longer, so we're better instrumentalists. Things get refined in terms of the band language. I was very happy with the piano on this recording. It was a really great Steinway. I went to the Steinway factory in Queens to pick out a piano, and after I picked it out, they told me it was the one Evgeny Kissin likes, who's arguably one of the top half-dozen classical pianists in the whole world. So that made me feel good.

Would you say there's a unifying theme to your choice of covers on these albums?

No. But there has to be a good reason for us to do the song. Jazz musicians have taken popular music of the day for their own purposes forever. That's what Louis Armstrong did in the '30s. That's what Miles Davis did in the '50s. Coltrane's "My Favorite Things" is a perfect example. Before that, classical pianists would improvise on a theme from an opera.

Theme and variation is a mainstay of European classical music, so this can be seen in that context. I would say that there must be something about our arrangements on each of these songs that we feel gives it a reason to live. They're obviously not straight interpretations. I wouldn't go so far as to say there's a political reason for every interpretation, but at the very least, there's some kind of theatrical reason or emotional reason.

Do you guys all propose songs to cover?

In this case, most of the suggestions came from Reid and Dave because they know much more about pop music than I do.

I'm going to name a few songs you've covered, and could you tell me their significance to you at the time you decided to take them on? I'll start with "Smells Like Teen Spirit".

Well that's an iconic song, and it fits very easily into being played in a simple, direct, jazzy way. At an early gig, we didn't have enough original music to play a whole set, and in jazz, you obviously play some standards. And I think Reid or Dave said, "Instead of standards, let's play 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'. That's easy enough to do." So we did it, and that was that. I remember on our first recording, I listened to the original quite a bit, and I was struck that there was some kind of lonely sound there, so I tried to play in some kind of lonely fashion.

What about Blondie's "Heart of Glass"?

In that case, it was the distinctive melody and that great hook with the odd bar, 7/4 action. We really put it through the filter of free jazz, something avant-garde. We deconstruct it and then hammer home the 7/4 hook at the end. In the original, you blink and you'll miss that moment, but it becomes very obvious in our version.

Would you say you get a sort of deviant pleasure from taking these straightforward songs and twisting them, a sort of subversive quality to it?

Subversive and definitely surreal, absolutely. But this is very much in the tradition of Thelonious Monk, who is one my big heroes and a hero of Reid and Dave too. Monk was a master of taking old songs and making them surreal or giving them complex emotions. We hope to see ourselves in that tradition.

And I wanted to ask about two songs from It's Hard: "Staring at the Sun" by TV on the Radio.

Well Reid and Dave listened to that album, [Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes], incessantly when it came out. They loved that song. For me, I was like, "What can I do with this?" So at the beginning of the piece, I try to play like I'm in a Japanese garden or something kind of exotic. In a way, that's a more straightforward interpretation as well. At the end, the original arrangement is quoted by Reid and Dave.

And finally, Prince's "The Beautiful Ones". Had he died at the time you'd chosen that song?

No, we had no idea. We just laid the song down, and he died about two weeks later.

Did it take on any sort of extra significance at that point?

Well, I'm sort of happy we did it before he died because there's a lightness to our interpretation that would have been hard to have after he died.

As long as you've been the Bad Plus, you've been the trio of Ethan, Reid, and Dave. What about the specific interplay of piano, bass, and percussion do you think works so well?

It is a classic instrumentation. The holy trinity of music is melody, harmony, and rhythm. All three instruments do those roles. The drums can be melodic and harmonic as well as rhythmic. Of course the piano is a percussion instrument, and the bass does all three all the time. So there's some way it just meets in the middle that makes sense to us and has made sense for a lot of great jazz over the years.

You three all seem to have very different personalities, which I'm sure is part of why you have such a distinct sound. Dave seems to be very outspoken; Reid seems more contemplative. How would you describe your roles outside the studio or the stage?

I think I'm the most interested in jazz history, and I blog about it furiously. Those guys like jazz history, but they don't do that kind of thing. In terms of my role outside of the band -- I write about music, myself. I think in some ways, the three of us are pretty similar compared to the rest of the population. [laughing] We're different, but when you look at everybody and then you look at the three of us, there must be something really unified.

Although your lineup is sacred, you've worked with a lot of different folks over the years. I wanted to ask: who's been the biggest challenge as a collaborator, and who was the most fun as collaborator?

Well, [2014's] The Rite of Spring was a big project. There were videographers involved, and the music is very hard. Although there wasn't a fourth musician on stage, it was a commissioned work with a big video element, so there were more moving parts and a greater responsibility get it all right on that first night. That was the biggest challenge. That was stressful. Everyone had to nail their parts exactly. Essentially we played a 40-minute, composed classical piece and couldn't make any mistakes. That's not true in jazz.

And the most fun?

They've all been great. For me, working with Joshua Redman [on 2015] was such a blast, on tour with him, getting to hear him play every night. I learned a lot from Josh.

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