Adventurous Jazz Trio the Bad Plus Keeps Evolving, Onstage and in the Studio

OFF-KILTER JAZZ: Best known for unorthodox covers of Black Sabbath and Nirvana, the Bad Plus has turned to original songs on its most recent albums.

Photo by Cameron Wittig

OFF-KILTER JAZZ: Best known for unorthodox covers of Black Sabbath and Nirvana, the Bad Plus has turned to original songs on its most recent albums.

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For more than a decade, the Bad Plus has been delighting and confounding audiences with its off-kilter brand of jazz. The mostly instrumental trio (bassist Reid Anderson, pianist Ethan Iverson, and drummer Dave King) officially formed in Minneapolis back in 2000, and the group’s eponymous debut, released a year later, cemented their status as one of the genre’s most experimental, forward-looking groups. But with its unique synthesis of tasteful smooth-jazz textures and progressive, fusion-esque instrumental chops, lumping the band into a particular scene or movement has been exhausting and futile.

Complicating matters even further is the band’s taste for cover tunes—for totally reimagining often straightforward pop and rock songs in a widescreen jazz context. (A sampling from over the years includes Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” and Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.”) These creative interpretations ultimately won the band a swarming, devoted fan base, not to mention plenty of glowing press—NPR named the 2003 sophomore album, These Are the Vistas, one of the decade’s 50 most important recordings.

But when you gaze back at the band’s chaotic discography, there isn’t much of a thematic through-line: 2005’s Suspicious Activity only featured one cover (Vangelis’ “(Theme From) Chariots of Fire”), while 2007’s wonderfully titled Prog was a direct blend of expansive original material and off-the-wall covers (Rush’s “Tom Sawyer,” Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”). On 2008’s All I Care, the band dropped the original tunes and upped the craziness (covering Pink Floyd, the Bee Gees, the Flaming Lips, and Stravinsky), not to mention utilizing vocalist Wendy Lewis. Then, in 2010, they dropped the singing and the covers altogether for the more cohesive Never Stop, their first all-original album.

“We do generally have a direction in mind,” Anderson says, in the artistic understatement of the century. “But first of all, we really believe in the group dynamic. We really believe that when we play, we’re playing our music. We’re not playing someone else’s music or conforming to someone else’s vision. What we’re doing is our vision, our music. And that energy is really different from anyone else.”

And on this year’s Made Possible, they’ve never sounded more confident in what they’re doing, even if they have, as always, managed to take their sound in slightly new directions. Recording at an isolated studio in New York (instead of their normal Minnesota digs), the members of the Bad Plus started with a more wide-open palette instead of road-testing the material as they usually do before entering the studio. All but the album’s sweet, cocktail-lounge closer “Victoria” (a tribute to percussionist/composer Paul Motian) are original instrumentals, and they’re as sprawling as anything they’ve released up to this point, incorporating subtle synthesizer touches and bits of programmed drums. “For My Eyes Only” features one of Iverson’s loveliest piano themes, building from chilling near-silences to cathartic bursts of full-band clatter. Meanwhile, “Seven Minute Mind” is one of the trio’s most dynamic, rhythmically challenging pieces of music, yet also one of their catchiest, with Iverson and Reid building interlocking ostinato layers and King piling on the grooves.

“That one’s really hard!” Anderson says. “It has all those time shifts and stuff, all those interlocking mechanisms that are really hard to play, especially for the piano. I can’t believe (Iverson) can even play that at all!”

But even though the Bad Plus specializes in complex music, and even though that complexity has been captured wonderfully in their studio work thus far, the band’s legacy has been equally built onstage, where spontaneity and crowd interaction help transport the songs (and players) to entirely new places.

“The music is written with that in mind—that we are improvisers,” Anderson says. “No performance is the same. Anything can happen. And if you listen to the record and then you listen to us live, you can hear the difference.”

But he’s quick to note that, even when the spirit of improvisation kicks in, the members of the Bad Plus have always put the songs themselves first. “Things can certainly happen in the course of hashing out the idea,” Anderson says. “We like the songs as they are, but sometimes songs can evolve, and someone might take something in a different direction, and we’re all comfortable with that. We don’t really have any hard and fast rules about these things, but the core of the songs are really important to us.”

And whether they’re writing their own material or reinventing what’s come before, the Bad Plus remains faithful to their messy collective muse, following it wherever it may take them.

“We’ve never done anything for any other reason than we just wanted to do it,” Anderson says. “So when we put cover tunes on records, it’s because we wanted to do it. Over the years, our fans have come to really love what we do and expect that it’s not always going to be the same thing, which is really a privileged position to be in.”

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