The Bad Plus—the Magnificent Threesome

In a discussion about what their music is—and is not—Dave King, drummer for the Bad Plus, remembers opening a show for free-jazz patriarch Ornette Coleman at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. After their set, the band joined the audience to watch Coleman.

"After the first couple tunes—and this was in a seated theater—I swear, half the audience had left. Fifty years into your career, and he's still making people want to check it out and then decide if they can take it. And that's every night, I bet.

"We played the Mercury Lounge [in New York City] recently, and it was packed. There were a lot of people in there who were just going to a Lower East Side rock club. If we can be a gateway into jazz for them, or just their band, that's great. If you can get someone in the door, we can show them what we do and take them into our world."

"When John Zorn was getting big," says pianist Ethan Iverson, "and he'd play as loud as possible to kick everybody out of the room and then be like, 'Okay, now only the heads are here.' It was an aggressive act, trying to say you're on one side of the fence or the other. I have to say, that's never been part of what we are thinking at all."

"We've always been a committed ensemble for personal music," bassist Reid Anderson says.

This muscular, adventurous, abundantly talented trio recently released its ninth album, Made Possible, which is only their second of all original material in 12 years. The group has built its reputation on its fearlessly intriguing cover versions of left field rock tunes by everyone from the Bee Gees to the Pixies. But being known for delightfully twisted covers has come at the price of overshadowing their considerable compositional gifts. This is made abundantly clear on Made Possible by tunes like Anderson's starkly melodic "Pound for Pound," the free jazz of Iverson's "Re-Elect That," and King's assertive "Wolf Out." Although the threesome graciously answered questions about cover tunes when, en masse, they stopped by the Stereophile offices to chat, the subject clearly makes them weary. While they know they've put themselves in this position by doing so many covers so well, it is perhaps one of the reasons that both Made Possible and its predecessor, Never Stop (2010) are cover-free.

The Bad Plus's journey to that pair of albums began in 2008 with For All I Care, a record that featured the wild-card addition of Wendy Lewis singing a program of rock tunes and classical compositions that ranged from the Flaming Lips' "Feeling Yourself Disintegrate" and Nirvana's "Lithium" to pieces by Igor Stravinsky, Milton Babbitt, and Gyîrgy Ligeti. Drummer King had played with Minneapolis resident Lewis in a 1990s rock band, Rhea Valentine, as well as in King's intermittent jazz-trio side project, Happy Apple.

"We thought, 'Why don't we just go way outside the comfort zone, and just change it from an instrumental band to a full-blown project with a vocalist doubling the melodies in our songs?'" says King.

"Dave had played with her ten years previously," Anderson says. "When this project came around, we didn't hold auditions or even debate it much. Her name sort of came up and we just said, 'Yeah, Wendy's the one!'"

"She's a risk taker," King adds; "unafraid, and at the same time wide-eyed and wanting to jump into something new and learn. She's also a really affable, cool person. We liked the idea of someone who was a little more underground, not someone who was a marquee singer who we were all of a sudden backing up."

"The Bad Plus is this thing, and we do this certain kind of music, and we speak this certain language," Anderson resumes. "So if someone comes in, it's about playing the music of the Bad Plus. We kind of demand that whoever we play with sort of meets us on our terms."

"She's a singer—not the singer for the Bad Plus," King says.

For All I Care, which was also issued as a beautiful LP pressed on 180gm vinyl, may also have been the high-water mark of the band's love affair with covers. That connection started with their interpretation of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," which they recorded twice: on their self-titled debut on Fresh Sound (2001), and two years later for their second record, These Are the Vistas (2003), which also marked the beginning of what became a troubled relationship with Sony/BMG. Both "Teen Spirit" covers gave the trio immediate visibility while exposing them to criticism that they were too populist, too rock, and edging too perilously close to being a novelty act—charges that have since proved emphatically untrue. But still—why record this already overfamiliar tune twice?

"The versions are different," King says. "If you remember, the first one is very bouncy, it's almost like bebop in a way. And the second one has got this sort of drone energy to it. I remember [producer] Tchad [Blake] had absolute suggestions to make it slower and sadder on some level, get more tragedy into it, be more reflective of the original energy.

"It's just one part of something we do in a really honest way," King continues. "One of our favorite things to do is to take music and make it our own. To hijack music—it's part of the jazz tradition, and we feel that the way we do it is special. That's why it got the attention. We didn't start doing that expecting that that's what a lot of the press was going to attach itself to. And then it becomes, every time you're reading about yourself you're reading about covers of Blondie. It's like, 'Motherfucker, that was 12 years ago!' I love 'Heart of Glass.' I'll play it right now—we have no problem with that. But after For All I Care, which was such a project-based thing, including playing contemporary classical music as well as Yes and Heart and things of that nature, we needed to establish that this actually is a really serious composer band—everyone is a real composer."

King takes a breath. "It's very comforting to have dropped a few records now that are all original music. Hey, if all you're reading is one page on us in Fader from 2003, you gotta know that you don't know anything about what this thing actually is. And that's not a defensive stance. It's just a stance of, like, 'Okay, check it out, and if you're not willing to see that 80% of our music has been original since the get-go . . . And here's a new story: we also write music!'"

"It's really not just for fun," Anderson says of the band's often playful, inventive way with covers. "It's something we do seriously, to take this music and make it our own and really rise to the challenge of how do you play [Queen's] 'We Are the Champions' in an improvising context. How do you personalize it? A cover band tries to replicate it. We're doing something very different. We're trying to look at it from all these different angles. We're trying to discover something new about the song and play it with the sound of the Bad Plus."

"Those tunes also kind of cage some of our most avant-garde moments," says King. "Some of our original music is way more inside than us playing something like [Vangelis's] 'Chariots of Fire.' There are a lot of jazz groups that play rock tunes, yet I think one of the reasons why people attach themselves to our versions is that we didn't necessarily meet them head on in some sort of jazz framework. We weren't like, 'We should change that chord to the jazz chord and we should make sure this has the jazz harmony.' I think it's much more about us trying to make the music our own with all the tools that we use while also keeping the aura of the original pieces alive, keeping some of the visceral energy in them that came from the way they were recorded."

"That's why we try to choose indestructible music," Anderson says. "It gives us that freedom to do what we want. If you're playing [Black Sabbath's] 'Iron Man,' it's got a pretty solid core. That gives us freedom, but still maintains that tether to familiarity. There's no obvious roadmap on how to arrange the music that we choose to do. It takes a lot of thought and creative energy to pull it off."

"The energy is ultimately the same, it's conceptualism," Iverson says of originals vs covers. "Even within Made Possible, which is the starkest minimalism I've ever heard on a jazz record, honestly—plus atonal improvisations, plus electronic elements, plus any sort of folkloric American feel you can imagine—it still all sounds like the Bad Plus. Same thing, whether it's the Rite of Spring or Kurt Cobain. That's something I'm deeply proud of: just to be part of a group that, no matter what, we always sound like us, because in the postmodern era everybody does everything, as far as I can tell. Everyone's in the cycle of how to look like they're about to break out and do this new thing."

Covers or originals, this is also a band that has been interested in the way their recordings sound. Although they've been producing themselves since For All I Care, they worked with engineer and producer Tchad Blake for the three records they made for Columbia: These Are the Vistas (2003), Give (2004), and Suspicious Activity? (2005). Suspicious Activity? unfortunately titled because this also the CD to which Sony/BMG added spyware without telling the band, and ignited a raging controversy that found the trio ultimately urging fans not to buy the album until clean copies were made available. Now, they quietly say, their relationship with Sony "eroded" soon after.

"One thing about Tchad: Though he was our producer for sure, it's not like he had any say about the inner workings of the songs," Iverson says. "He had a great vibe. He made you feel inspired—'Go get 'em, team!' I'm not saying there weren't those moments, but from what I know about what it's like with rock records, it's often said that the producer is the 'architect' of the record. With us, Tchad was more of an engineer. But that said, the success of those first couple of records, he had a lot to do with that. He's a real artist. He made those records sound like no other bass-piano-drums trio record that I ever heard. They really explode out of the speakers."

"Interestingly enough," says Anderson, "with Tchad Blake, what we did was put the drums in the middle, the piano on the right, and bass on the left. That was kind of an odd mix for us. Tchad has such a signature sonic palette. He really puts his fingerprints on the sound of a record, and we really liked that. We sort of bowed to him, in terms of what he wanted to do and how he wanted to record it. He was even saying, 'Wow, I don't think a lot of people would feel this comfortable giving me this much freedom to do what I want.'

"It was really important for us to make a record that sounded different," Anderson continues, "even though we're playing acoustic instruments and sort of traditional instrumentation. We're not really fans of the sound of a lot of recent jazz recordings. They can sound so anonymous, just some 'well-recorded' instruments. The records we all love have some sonic idiosyncrasies to them. If you want to listen to the Blue Note records recorded by Rudy Van Gelder, where there's a character to the sound beyond the music itself, you're already drawn into the sound of the record. Certainly not on all records, but generally speaking, it seems harder and harder these days to get that kind of character because engineers are like, 'Oh, I never use compression because I don't want to mess with your sound. I want to capture the pure sound.' That doesn't always produce an end result that I personally find interesting."

"One day," says Iverson, "Tchad brought in a Billie Holiday record on a 78 player and we listened to it. In a way, it's the most unnatural sound you can get, but it has charisma. It has the attention. In the quest for the natural sound, I think you can end up getting a strangely flatlined experience."

"We were lucky to work with a great sound engineer on Made Possible, Pete Rende," Anderson says. "One of the sounds of this record is that we mixed it down to an old Ampex tape machine, the kind they recorded Kind of Blue on. He has a couple other tape machines, and we were playing around with different ones, but the way that this machine transformed the sound was really a revelation."

"I think I can sort of hear that three-dimensional presence, or something where even in the MP3 format you kind of feel weight," King says. "There are times on this record where the drums almost remind me of a '70s Neil Young record, where you have this dead snare drum, but it's got this presence sitting in the mix, but there's no big show going on around it. We wanted a concert-tom sound. We were taping up the toms and using washcloths, and it turned out really nice, I thought."

So has making two records of all original music opened a new chapter for the Bad Plus, which has lasted longer than many jazz trios? Or have they exhausted the possibilities inherent in a format that has long thrived in jazz, from Benny Goodman through Bill Evans to Keith Jarrett and Brad Mehldau?

"In jazz, there's a tradition of working in this format, just like there's string quartets in classical music," Iverson says. "It's a classic combination that I can't really see getting old, you know? You're looking at three furnaces right now. We have plenty still to say. Whether there's time enough to say it all, that's the question."

"I wanna keep getting better," King says. "I want to add more dimensions in the band. I feel we get more nuanced every year. We get more challenges in the original music. More flavors to add. I think we are comfortable in calling ourselves a modern jazz trio. I think that, for me, there is a small anchor to a tradition. We're not these guys who are like 'Fuck jazz!' and 'Fuck the tradition!' We're trying to honor the outgrowth of improvised music. It's an acoustic trio—piano, bass, and drums—and a part of me feels like if we start showing up with deejays and everything like that . . . I think the three of us like being tied to a traditional form of American music making."

jrmandude's picture

This is a great band.  Upon seeing them live I learned the great extent to which all three excel and the drummer stood out more than I noticed on the records.  A true ensemble.  The covers are cool and refute the silly notion that jazz is an artifact since we no longer produce the great american songbook.  The albums are great and just so damn infectious.