In conversation with the bad plus
When The Bad Plus’s major label debut These are the Vistas was released in 2003, it stirred up debate that few new releases in jazz had done for some while. After the renascent 1990s, when strictures of what jazz was and what it wasn’t had filled the air, playing by the rule book had, in general, become the status quo in jazz. So the arrival of The Bad Plus was a bit of a culture shock.
Here was a band—Ethan Iverson on piano, Reid Anderson on bass and Dave King on drums—who since their formation in 2000 had worked on creating a very specific group identity, described by Dave King in The New York Times as, “white-noise atmosphere, all the instruments colliding, very calamity-driven, chaos-theory stuff.” Seeming to cock-a-snoot at current jazz proprietary, this band’s music, often loud, complex and rhythmic, succeeded in inducing involuntary facial tics among listeners of a more temperate disposition.
Some critics wanted to stab them to death with their pens, yet the band’s off-the-wall abandon, artful deconstruction of staples from popular culture and cohesive group sound soon won them infinitely more friends than enemies. For a start, The Bad Plus's music sounded as if it had been recorded in 2003 and not 1963, and even pop critics, who had long despaired of jazz, were won over. “A spectacular collection of songs that doesn’t require a user’s manual to captivate you,” said Esquire magazine.
Certainly the use of songs by the likes of Kurt Cobain, Blondie and Aphex Twin on that first album helped The Bad Plus’s case in extending their appeal beyond the usual jazz constituency. This undoubtedly irked some critics to whom playing “covers” from popular culture represented something of a betrayal, and many failed to acknowledge the detailed, ingenious and often inspired re-workings, conjured-up by the trio, which often sounded like different compositions entirely.
The Bad Plus quickly realised that one of the problems of covering songs from popular culture is the memory of a song’s original performance is often difficult to disentangle from the song itself. It’s the performance that achieves an autonomous character and not the song. Yet The Bad Plus succeeded in making the songs sound their own, thus forcing listeners to consider them afresh. This of course is what jazz musicians have long done during the music’s productive relationship with popular culture—most of us do not think of Julie Andrews when listening to Coltrane’s 1961 version of “My Favourite Things” or Cyndi Lauper when listening to Davis’ 1984 version of “Time After Time,” for example.
As the original controversy the surrounded the group gradually subsided, the band became a popular draw at festivals across the US and Europe. After last year’s Prog, described by Billboard as “easily the most likeable and listenable jazz album of 2007,” the trio wanted to try some new ideas and broaden their musical concept. So for their next album they decided to continue reworking contemporary songs, but this time clarify them with a voice. They also had the idea of taking compositions from the classical canon and seeing what they could do with them. Both approaches suggested great potential, but both came loaded with problems of conception as much as execution. Here, with the release of For All I Care, the trio discuss the challenges of launching out in fresh directions and the concepts behind them.
So, new approaches for the new album, tell us about them.
Reid Anderson: This being our sixth album, we really have been thinking for a while about changing things up a bit for ourselves and friends of The Bad Plus, and what would be the next logical step for us. I think we are essentially a band that is about songs. Whether it’s other people’s or our own, we’re always thinking of things in terms of songs and it became pretty obvious to us that we should use a singer for the next record. That is the next logical step. So the challenge became who are we going to do it with? We discussed it quite a bit throwing around the idea of maybe someone who is well known or maybe ask somebody who is famous to do it, but then it seemed to us we needed somebody to work with us within the parameters of what the Bad Plus is.
Dave King: Even though we had been this city unto ourselves, we began to talk about what would make most sense in terms of a real departure and that was to bring a singer into record. We had also thought of a guitar or whatever but we didn’t want the music to take this turn sonically. We’re just into this idea of the three of us, this trio and what we’ve been able to do with it. And we felt a singer was a way to go and I knew this singer Wendy Lewis who I worked with in Minneapolis several years ago. She’s incredible, more than ensemble player, she’s not like a diva ‘up front’ type thing. She’s much more this person who can deal with really progressive music, she had bands of her own that I worked with that were always dealing in weird time signatures and stuff. She wasn’t a ‘jazzy’ jazz singer, someone who was going to come in and have that type of mentality that the vocal was to be supported at all times in a polite manner, she was much more experimental, almost like a P. J. Harvey-type character, and we ended up talking about it last summer  and she was really interested.
Bringing a singer into your own private world of a trio must have been a challenge, because on the album, Wendy Lewis actually sounds if she’s a life-long member of The Bad Plus in the way she doesn’t blur the identity of the group, but becomes a part of it.
DK: I’m very glad you’re hearing that, because that was worked on, that was thought about, and she came in and delivered exactly what we wanted. We arranged the music together, it took a long time. We worked on the music when we were on tour, and we’d hook up a rehearsal studio when we were in New York and fly her out from Minneapolis, talk about each line! Literally some of the rhythms underneath her—we really worked at these poly-rhythms under her vocal, we were really trying to come at it from all these places, some new music, some old music, some country music, some rock, and do it with the same energy. She’s incredible, amazing.
RA: She not there to ‘be the singer’ and be the focal point. She there’s to deliver the song along with us, and we’re thrilled it’s worked out this way, that we still get to be The Bad Plus and there happens to be a voice singing these songs with us.
DK: I just feel that the sound of The Bad Plus is intact, it’s not as if we’re backing some singer, like we got some star or something like that. Every piece, there’s all these elements of improvising and all these things, and she is much more a part of the ensemble as an instrument more than anything and she really worked at that.
Ethan Iverson: We’ve been careful since the beginning to insist on a band identity, and Wendy is a great a pop singer, she came from Minnesota, and was someone who was happy to fit in with The Bad Plus.
I understand you’ve already worked with her on a two live gigs, how did they work out?
EI: We played at North Sea and the Rochester Jazz Festival. They were very successful gigs and our audience appreciated the addition of Wendy. We’re a very tight unit, making records just the three of us and it seemed time to try another element and it couldn’t have worked out better, I don’t think.
DK: She just went over great. She is like another instrument, she’s not standing out in front of us, she’s not this gargantuan personality; she’s got this intense, compressed energy. It’s like this Tom Waits character. She wears this pork-pie hat, not this traditional big dressed, long haired diva coming out. She’s a band member, one of the guys. She positions by the drums and the bass and just goes for it and people were just like, what??? It was so beautiful to have that kind of reaction we did, just to test the waters for touring and both times receiving standing ovations. It’s just been really beautiful. People accepting that it is a natural part of our evolution
It is interesting to reflect how many set jazz ensembles have tried the idea of bringing a vocal into their tightly knit little world, going right back the Benny Goodman Quartet in the 1930s on a live broadcast with Martha Tilton, or Bob Dorough with Miles Davis singing ‘Blue Christmas,’ Johnny Hartman with John Coltrane . . .
RA: That John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman album is one of our favourite records of all time and I think that’s some of the best paying from the Coltrane quartet. There’s something about a band with a saxophone playing songs that makes them more powerful. So often it’s just the back-up to a singer, but with John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman it’s the whole thing.
I think that since the conception of the trio we haven’t felt like playing the Great American Songbook. It doesn’t feel necessary to us to do another version of that music that in a way—it’s not the sound of our life experience, as much as we love all that music. It’s just something that’s been done. As fans of the music, we’re not attracted to hearing yet another version of “Round About Midnight,” you know? It feels more important to us, based on who we are and where we come from and the time we’re living in to try to bring the elements of who we are together and those elements include contemporary rock and pop music, those songs we’ve heard on the radio growing up or hear on the radio now, things that are in the popular consciousness of today. Because we care about the music, and we’re all pretty deep, we come out of a deep exploration of the jazz tradition, each one of us. But it feels like the jazz tradition doesn’t reach the heart of the contemporary person in quite the way I personally would like it to.
DK: I think there’s so much music out there that can be re-arranged and improvised with that will connect with people, which was the whole purpose of playing standards originally, which of course we have done in our lives and even done in the band. We just feel there is something to [playing contemporary pop songs], and we have some strange chemistry with this. and we feel it is a valid thing to work with and improvise with. And it’s a challenge, it’s a real artistic challenge. There’s no other reason to do it. It isn’t ‘big money’ music. We’re riding around in vans, we’re up at five o’clock in the morning, it’s not a joke. We can’t believe someone wrote that it was funny to do a Wilco song. I’m glad I spend 150 days a year away from my children for a joke, do you know what I mean?
We can understand there is humor, but there is humor in all drama. Ultimately we’re not focused on the humor element. If you want to pull what you want from it, you can. It’s a very disturbing attitude that [people feel] playing anything other than the Great American Songbook is deemed ironic, you know what I mean? We just feel that if you’re a modern musician you have to deal with all kinds of music. We’re doing it alongside Nirvana and Pink Floyd with the same intensity, the energy doesn’t change from piece to piece. Even with this Hearts tune ‘Barracuda,’ that’s really on the line for a lot of people. That’s this rock radio staple, the intensity is complex, the emotion is complex, we’ve added all this stuff to it, and we’re doing it earnestly even though it’s this driving-around-in-your-car rock. It’s like we’re trying to create a more complex base. It’s hard to describe, it’s complex emotions, it’s not just sitting there and going tra-da, ‘a piano trio that jams on a Hearts song.’ That’s such an easy way out! There’s some very serious intent in trying to get some new emotion out of that music, you know?
RA: If I may also add to that, part of the jazz tradition is to keep exploring and looking for new songs to play. When John Coltrane did “My Favorite Things,” that wasn’t a part of the standard songbook at the time. It’s a song that if John Coltrane hadn’t done it you might want to say it’s a silly song, who’d want to do that? But the fact is that he decided to do that song and did it the way it did it became a completely different thing and when you hear John Coltrane playing “My Favorite Things” it’s completely transformed it into something else. There’s a meta text occurring there, and I think the criticisms of ‘abandoning the American Popular Songbook’ or whatever you want to call it, they are separated from the historical reality of what jazz musicians have always done. Why should we, because we’re living now in 2008, why should we be denied the freedom of choice to play music that is more contemporary and meaningful to us?
I was very impressed by your approach to the classical pieces, just four of them, which are like ‘instrumentals’ in the way they nicely contrast with the pieces that include Wendy. Can you tell us a little about your approach to these pieces?
EI: The Bad Plus has always been interested in extremes, and that whatever it was to take it seriously and push it as far as it would go. In a way Ligeti and Wilco are opposite extremes, if you will. There’s not a whole lot of harmony based improvising in the classical pieces. We tried to play them clearly and well with drums. The idea of combining jazz and classical music has been around for a long time, although the stuff from the 1950s doesn’t hold up today because of the improvisation, and the classical music didn’t have the abandon and there was something there that didn’t take off, so our solution was just to play the music, the classical music, and add some great drumming and see what that sounds like. To us it sounds like a piece of great modern electronica. It certainly isn’t our intention to play a head on Stravinsky and then blow on it like bebop, our intention is to play Stravinsky well.
It certainly comes off well on the record, the freedom of the rhythmic approach especially.
EI: I think it’s the way to go. We’re interested in The Bad Plus having each piece, Stravinsky, our own pieces, a rock cover—it should make sense as a song, have organic unity. There are still incredible straight-ahead players around today who play a short melody and there are eight minutes of improvisation, which is still valid in my opinion, but what we’re not trying to do that, however. We have a song and there is improvising in it.
DK: While we were working on the contemporary classical, we were trying to do something that again we felt were things you don’t hear that often, more unprecedented—the idea of a jazz trio playing Milton Babbit, playing Gyorgy Ligeti playing Igor Stravinsky, doing it with these progressive rhythm elements and playing the exact arrangements with no improvising.
Yet these more abstract classical pieces seem to perfectly compliment the rest of the album, the songs with Wendy Lewis.
RA: Exactly, and that fits in with our collective aesthetic, the belief these musics do not need to have a dividing line between them. Ligeti and the Bee Gees can exist on the same CD and make sense—it makes complete sense to us anyway! Also, we like to keep ourselves sharp, facing down contemporary classical and figuring how to do that within the parameters of what we do, it’s a challenge. Playing Ligeti is some work. Every time we played it, it really exhilarated me, it’s this thing where you hold on for dear life until you get to the end.
A nice note on which to end on, thanks guys.