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This article by Richard J. Skelly was prepared for the March 31, 2004
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Why Is the Bad Plus So Good?
What separates the Bad Plus from other jazz trios? The band splashed onto New York’s and the international jazz scene last February with "These Are The Vistas," their debut recording for Columbia Records. It’s rare to see a major label signing new jazz acts these days, and even rarer to see a play list that looks anything like the Bad’s.
"These Are The Vistas" features jazz interpretations of rock ‘n’ roll radio staples – including such universal pop anthems as Nirvana’s "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and Blondie’s "Heart of Glass." The Bad Plus has a new release, "Give," its second for Columbia, that features a jazzy, improvisation-filled take on Black Sabbath’s classic "Iron Man."
The Bad Plus takes the stage at the Peddie School’s CAPPS series on Friday, April 2, at 8 p.m. Before the show, at 7 p.m., the band will do a short question and answer session.
Aside from this choice of material, what separates this threesome from the rest of the pack of jazz trios is that all three – pianist Ethan Iverson, 31, bassist Reid Anderson, and drummer Dave King, both 33 – have remained close friends, even amidst all the hoopla of their major record deal. The Bad Plus officially formed in 2000, Anderson explains, but all three have been friends for many years.
"It’s been just a blast to take our friendships into this area," Iverson explains from his flat in Brooklyn. "We’ve all known each other for a long, long time. Reid and Dave met in junior high and spent their high school years together, banging around and playing and learning about rock ‘n’ roll and jazz." All three musicians are from the Midwest, and after quitting college, they moved to New York City as quickly as possible. After all, New York is the jazz capital of the world.
"I was in Wisconsin and they were in Minnesota," Iverson says, "Reid spent a year in a Wisconsin college. I met him then, and I met Dave then, too. The three of us played together at Reid’s house in 1989 or 1990. Then we spent years doing different stuff before getting together formally in the year 2000," Iverson says.
In New York, Iverson began private studies with Fred Hersch and Sofia Rosoff. He made his solo recording debut in 1993 at age 20 with "School Work," a disc which featured tenor saxophone giant Dewey Redman. Iverson has since worked extensively with Reid Anderson, Mark Turner, Bill McHenry, and Patrick Zimmerli, among others. He has appeared before at McCarter Theater as musical director for the Mark Morris Dance Group, a company that prides itself on performing with live music whenever possible, including a Morris solo that he accompanied on a tiny piano. Morris’ company has also brought in Iverson to perform with Mikhail Baryshnikov and Yo Yo Ma.
King didn’t move to New York City right away, Iverson says. He went to Los Angeles after high school, but then moved back to Minneapolis.
"We flew each other around and lost considerable sums of money to rehearse together," he recalls. Once they all ended up in New York City, the road was filled with potholes, at least, initially.
"It’s hard to secure bookings here when you’re the new kid on the block," says Iverson, "and it wasn’t until recently that I started playing in clubs that actually paid me. All through the 1990s, we’d rent spaces and put on our shows in these rented places. The Bad Plus put on their first official show at a rented space at Roulette."
Iverson grew up in Menomonee, Wisconsin, a small college town, with parents who supported him in his music interest. He began playing piano at 10, and had to order jazz records mail order, since there were no record shops around. It was a revelation, he says, when he ordered a record called "Thelonious Monk: Piano Solos."
"I got it because it just said, ‘Piano Solos.’ That was the beginning of the end," he says, "there was just something compelling about it, so I listened to it over and over again."
By the time Iverson was in sixth grade, he knew he wanted to be a jazz pianist. "I think in high school I was incredibly unhip. Maybe in the long run I was hip, but in many ways I was something of a social outcast," he confesses.
After two years in New York City, the group finally caught a break when Lorraine Gordon, the savvy owner of the Village Vanguard, booked them into her club on Seventh Avenue South for one night as part of the JVC Jazz Festival.
"Lorraine gave us one night at the Village Vanguard and [producer] Yves Beauvais came down to hear us," says Iverson. "The next day, we did a power lunch with Yves." Beauvais signed the band to Columbia Records in June, 2002. A year later, the Bad Plus performed before a crowd of thousands at Bryant Park as part of the 2003 JVC Jazz Festival.
Aside from being kids raised on rock ‘n’ roll and some jazz, Iverson says their most important influence is the highly improvisational music of saxophonist Ornette Coleman. Coleman has always been something of a revolutionary in the jazz world, Iverson argues.
"He was such an innovator and he played with such energy and communication, regardless of what his ideas were. I think we fit right in with Ornette – there’s so much room in his music, it’s absolutely all-embracing."
Among fans of traditional jazz, saxophonist Coleman "has a rap of being hard to listen to," Iverson acknowledges, "but it’s important to remember when he came on the scene in 1959, Miles Davis and all the other players changed the way they were doing things. The Mingus records changed and Sonny Rollins changed, they all changed when Ornette came on the scene, it was so clear that everybody had to deal with it."
"We’re talking about a James Joyce here, a Jackson Pollock, we’re not talking about just anybody," says Iverson with enthusiasm.
Appropriately, the Bad Plus offers their take on Coleman’s tune, "Street Woman," on their new Columbia release. For the time being, the band is enjoying its newfound popularity and taking whatever credit it can for bringing more young fans into the jazz fold.
"People claim we’re more accessible," Iverson says, because the band chooses to include rock ‘n’ roll staples in their live shows.
"I think we’re more of a vanity project for Sony in a certain way," Iverson says, "because the label has such a history of doing good jazz." He notes that Warner Brothers, another major record company, recently folded its entire jazz division.
At the same time the Bad Plus is being given credit for attracting rock ‘n’ roll kids to the complexities of jazz. "We still get to play the kind of music we want to play, and it’s presented with enough good humor on stage that it tends to go over anyway."
Iverson estimates that the Bad Plus’ rock and pop covers make up about a fifth of what they perform at live shows. "We have a set list at all our shows, for sure, but we often change it. We pride ourselves on never using sheet music – just like a rock band or an old jazz band," says Iverson. Often, the group’s cover songs are the freest improvisations.
They are happy to take whatever credit they can for introducing teens and 20-somethings to the joys of improvised jazz. "The fact is, Dave can play some really mean rock ‘n’ roll drums," Iverson says of his band mate.
Meantime, the band has landed on the cover of "Jazz Times" and has everybody in the jazz world talking about them. "If anybody has gotten interested in jazz because of us, it’s just an honor," Iverson says.
"After all, this is about playing our music the way we want to play it. Jazz is such a misunderstood music to begin with, to the culture at large. If someone gets interested in jazz because of us, that’s just fantastic."
– Richard J. Skelly
The Bad Plus, CAPPS, Mount-Burke Theater, Peddie School, Hightstown, 609-490-7550. Pre-concert chat with the artists at 7 p.m. $15. Friday, April 2, 8 p.m.
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