It’s not often you sit down at a prestigious jazz club, take off your suit coat, order a dry martini and nod in appreciation of the Black Sabbath and Nirvana covers bellowing off the exposed brick walls. That was, of course, until The Bad Plus began infiltrating the jazz scene with their melodic pop twist to such a rich traditional instrumentation as the contemporary piano trio. But it was bound to happen. Every other genre has recently become blurred, mixed, convoluted, paired and rebuilt, so why not mix indie-rock and jazz?
When The Bad Plus released These Are The Vistas last year on the esteemed Columbia label, it not only received expected nods from jazz writers, but pop media icons – Rolling Stone, Blender and VH1- showered their rock audiences with The Bad Plus praises. Although previously unheard of for jazz trios, the band has successfully created a mainstream niche -a sector previously undone, both fresh and liberating, and just the slight bit controversial. Still, creating that spark once is almost expected, but issuing a follow-up effort of stronger statements would put the heavy first floor on a solid foundation. So The Bad Plus went back to producer Tchad Blake (Peter Gabriel, Pearl Jam, upcoming Phish album) and assembled Give. Undoubtedly with his pop creations and rock masterpieces, Blake alleviated that jazz and rock bridge that inevitably makes it all sound like The Bad Plus.
“Well there’s no question that [Blake’s] supernatural abilities are one of the reasons that those records come across as well as they do,” admits Ethan Iverson, the quintessential, dry-witted, jazz pianist. “And ‘bridge’ is a great word, because one of the things I feel he can do with those records, especially [Give], I feel like it comes out of the speakers in a really direct way, and in a powerful way. Obviously there are other jazz records that do that, but I think its very apparent on ours and that’s really important for us. So it’s absolutely true. And we didn’t even have to talk about it. For the first session, he set up mics and we were rolling and doing takes just within a couple of hours really.”
That immediate chemistry between the band and Blake allowed the sterile studio parameters to become a more natural setting, and one that was appealing to both parties. With a concerted effort to refrain from utilizing “studio magic” or overdubbing - something jazz audiences have grown accustomed to - they were able to focus on the project, and lay it down within days rather than the rock records Blake typically works on. A studio schedule Iverson is sure appealed to Blake.
“I think Tchad agreed to work with us on the first record due to the fact that the package came across to him like, ‘Tchad, here’s a session where the whole thing will only take a week, recording and mixing, and we play live.’ And he had just finished mixing up the Peter Gabriel album that took six months to mix and four years to track. So one thing he really likes about working with us is the fact that we just sit down and play it. And then you mix it a day or two later. So it’s sort of a good mesh for both of us. He brings his incredible sonic knowledge, and at the same time, we’re real players, so it’s sort of no fuss, no muss.”
The two well-garnered albums aren’t the first attempts at record longevity for The Bad Plus. Drummer David King and bassist Reid Anderson first met when they were fourteen, and they’ve been playing music together ever since. Iverson would eventually become the essential neutron to form The Bad Plus a few years later.
“I met Reid when I was seventeen, and actually, this trio first played a little jam session together back in 1990. So the roots go way back in a certain way. The three of us are all from a Minnesota/Wisconsin sort of axis of the world, and we feel like we have our little Midwestern dialect going on as players. Not really a ‘New York cool’ thing,” explains the now Brooklyn-based Iverson, “but more of a ‘Midwestern friendly’ thing. I assure you, if I could do ‘New York cool,’ I would do it, but it just hasn’t really worked out for us that way” he adds acidulously.
After ten years of various bands, generally living the jazz musicians 20s, the three officially formed The Bad Plus in 2000 and admittedly, in haste, put out their debut album on the Fresh Sound label recorded after only three gigs. The infacy staged self-titled album is an artifact Iverson would rather retire to the archives. “I don’t recommend hearing it if you’ve haven’t heard it before” he notes, “but it did have, in an embryonic form, the things that we do on Vistas and Give.”
With King working with his Minneapolis project, Happy Apple, The Bad Plus floated back and forth between their home region and the jazz mecca of New York City, and though audiences were not flocking at the onset, Iverson jokes of the dual-city rewards, noting, “it was really much to our advantage to have two different towns to play in as hometowns, because we were only playing to twenty people in both towns, so at least when you put them together it was forty.”
Of course, the long distances paid off, culminating with the now infamous Columbia Records signing after a summer 2002 appearance at New York City’s prestigious jazz club, The Village Vanguard. Iverson recalls, “we played one night as part of the JVC Festival, and Yves Beauvais of Columbia Records was there, and we took the power lunch with him the next day, and that led to Vistas.” But it wasn’t merely the attention from Columbia Records that won over the Vanguard bookers as Iverson is quick to add. “It was a very good night for us. Actually that night, before we had lunch with Yves, we got a week at the Vanguard the following February. Some people think that gig followed getting the record deal, which would be a logical assumption, but actually we were lucky enough to get a gig there just on the strength on our performing one night there.”
Criss-crossing Black Sabbath, The Pixies and Nirvana into jazz instrumentation obviously ruffled some jazz purist feathers, but Iverson in some ways was among them. While King and Anderson have more diverse musically inspirations, Iverson is a strict jazz pianist, admittedly less versed in rock than his bandmates. But it’s his naivety of the genre, combined with his impeccable talent and devotion to his instrumentation that truly grounds The Bad Plus sound. Though he’s reluctant to deem himself a traditionalist.
"I think [calling me a traditionalist is] a nice way of trying to say I don’t know shit about rock and roll. I mean, none of us are really traditionalists. We’re all just trying to play the music that we play. And if the music is good, I do not care about tradition. Caring about tradition too much can block things.” Never far from straight-faced sarcasm, Iverson concludes the comment by singing “tradition,” in his best Broadway voice and adds, “I definitely think that the daughter should have been able to marry whoever she wanted.”
“Approaching the catchy rhythms of a pop-rock song - even those of “Iron Man,” “Heart of Glass” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” - with an acoustic piano, upright bass and drums - can too easily become adult-contemporary muzak, but Iverson is confident their exploration and hard rocking sensibilities ultimately prevail.
“We’re reasonably aggressive players. I do believe that it’s easy to do a muzak version of a pop song, but I think we always strive to retain some of the hard-hitting impact. Obviously if Black Sabbath set up and played, it would be very intense, so that sort of level of intensity, despite the completely wrong instrumentation for it, I do think we go for that” Iverson explains before adding. “I mean, we hit hard and we’re proud of hitting hard. And the thing is, we’re improvisers. On that song, ‘Flim,’ that Aphex Twin cover, I don’t really improvise on that, but Dave is completely improvising. So there’s always some improvising. Like the Nirvana song or [Blondie’s] ‘Heart of Glass’ is almost entirely improvised. So that’s sort of the real paradigm shift.”
In a world well over-saturated with groove-funk, Hammond B-3 trios, Iverson’s commitment to the acoustic piano keeps The Bad Plus grounded in more traditional jazz instrumentation, while forcing the band to push harder to break rock boundaries. Yet Iverson is adamant that it’s not only his sole choice of instrument that prohibits them from being aligned with the Medeski’s and Soulive’s of the world.
“Let me tell you something, straight up here, no bullshit. I cannot play funky music and will never be able to” he explains in that familiar sardonic tone. “And I’m now too old to learn to. So I love it, but for me to do that sort of thing would not make any sense.” Though he’s quick not to categorize his counterparts, adding, “I bet actually Reid and Dave could do that pretty well. They have that versatility, but they’re not gonna do it with me.” It is blatantly apparent Iverson is devoted to the harmonies of jazz, and the complexities with which they derive from a piano.
“That’s why I’ve never been as attracted to rock very much. I listen to a lot of classical music, a lot of jazz. As a piano player, I’ve always been interested in the pure elements of melody and harmony, and the level of detailing that’s available. The art of harmony, it doesn’t matter whether you play it on the piano or a Hammond B-3 or a fuckin’ zither, the pitches are the pitches. And that’s a more abstract art. It’s more like calligraphy or something, but that’s what I’m really into and I can definitely only see my way of doing it on the piano.”
Further separating their sound from those atypical trios, and leaning more towards the jazz side of things, Iverson addresses the constant compare and contrast by explaining, “[The Bad Plus] is not groove music at all. It’s actually, in my opinion, quite complicated jazz. And it’s just this sort of lucky fluke that it’s gotten some of this press and interest from a larger audience. Although it’s still a very small audience of course, but nonetheless larger than a straight ahead bebop piano trio would get.”
It certainly has gotten a great deal of press, but in doing so, The Bad Plus hasn’t come off completely unscathed by a certain jazz traditionalist listener set. While many jazz aficionados have come to appreciate the stellar opposites, Iverson can’t deny the fact that some snide jazz critics immediately pass them off without hesitation. In fact, the current issue of JazzTimes features a cover story by Bill Milkowski in which he “systematically trashes us,” as Iverson puts it.
“But I have to say,” he adds with a cynical laugh, “I was kind of digging reading it, just because that’s sort of a cool emotion too…like, ‘gee, look at this three page article where someone’s hammering on you.’ And to actually make that much of a difference in someone’s life that they’re so mad they have to write all this shit, that’s an honor in a certain way. I mean, The Bad Plus [is clearly not] Bob Dylan plugging in, we’re not that big a deal, but a big enough deal that there’s an angry article in JazzTimes. Its like, ‘well alright man, look at that, I’m fuckin’ controversial.’ And that’s pretty cool.”
Admist all the hype, debate, scrutiny, and constant badgering for genre confinement, David King recently told Pollstar, The Bad Plus probably have more in common with someone like Sonic Youth than Wynton Marsalis. The colorful comparison immediately brings to mind the band’s upcoming Bonnaroo billing this summer, and the idea that The Bad Plus is the epitome of what that particular music festival has come to represent. When asked of his level of anticipation for the event, Iverson answers in his signature dry sarcasm, on-cue.
“We’re looking forward to it. I don’t smoke marijuana very much, but I understand that it might be available at Bonnaroo.” It probably will, and The Bad Plus will no doubt be blasting “Iron Man” through the heavy waifs of smoke.