Posted December 16, 2014 by Jeff in Tunes

The Bad Plus: Committed and all that jazz

The Bad Plus
The Bad Plus

Jazz trio The Bad Plus—bassist Reid Anderson, pianist Ethan Iverson and drummer David King—raised a few eyebrows with its 2001 debut. The album included inventive takes on pop and rock tracks such as Abba’s “Knowing Me, Knowing You” and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” On its latest effort, Inevitable Western, the band offers up nine original compositions that show the breadth of its musical ability. Songs such as “Gold Prisms Incorporated” have a prog feel to them while others such as “Epistolary Echoes” go for something more experimental. King phoned us from his Minneapolis home to discuss the new album.

How did you first meet?
We basically grew up together. Reid and I have been playing together since junior high. When we first played together as a trio, we were just kids. Ethan was 16. Ethan was in a small town in Wisconsin and Reid met him because he went to Aquarias-University of Wisconsin for a year. Reid was playing in jazz groups when Ethan, who was a young prodigy, was playing with the college groups. I was about to move to Los Angeles and he said, “Let’s have a session.” We had a session in his parents’ living room in the summer of 1990. The three of us were young, attitude-y jazz guys who had our distinct opinions on things. It didn’t go very well as far as playing goes. We didn’t even like Ethan very much. He was very precocious. He was 16 and knew everything. I moved to L.A. I had forgotten about Ethan when he rang me. I liked him a lot the second time and we hit it off musically. I kept coming to New York on tours with my group and he and Reid would come out. They wanted to do a committed band which is difficult in New York. In 2000, I joined them and we did a weekend trio and it was really strong. We knew there was something there and we committed to making a record. We started to play concerts and it went from there.

What did you set out to accomplish with your debut?
When we were first putting the band together, we needed two sets. We didn’t have that many originals. We didn’t want to play standards. We had always liked messing with rock music in a jazz format. We did that when we were younger. I wanted to try that. Ethan had no experience with rock music. Zero. He was literally in a bubble. We started naming tunes and he didn’t know any of them. We named Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” He didn’t even know who Nirvana was. We thought it could be interesting. We didn’t want to approach it like a rock tune that we felt sentimental about so we would play some jazz chords to it. We wanted to be conceptual with it. We realized we could put together some cool music we like from the rock canon and feed it through the machine of Ethan not knowing what it would be. It was obvious we weren’t going to jazzify everything. We’ve been criticized for that too. We’ve been a predominantly original group but the way we did covers was different. When we got our deal with Columbia, it was because of our original music. They didn’t hear “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and think they had to sign us. Sometimes, the overpublicizing of the way we did these reinterpretations overshadowed how much it’s about having three composers. Our third record for Columbia only had one interpretation and that was of “Chariots of Fire.” At some point in time, we’ll do that again but it’s not our focus. We’ll still bust the covers out live though.

What inspired the decision to work with a vocalist on 2009’s For All I Care?
We had been a group of ten years at that point. We had made six or seven records. We felt like going all the way into something different. We didn’t just want to have a guitar player or saxophone player and get Bill Frisell or something. We wanted to make that our major effort of looking at music we love from all different genres. We felt like a vocalist would really shift things up. I knew this great singer, Wendy Lewis, who was very experimental and not diva-y. She’s very group-oriented. She was more mature and older. It’s not like taking a kid on the road who would be acting like an idiot. It would be a totally cool hang. We’re proud of that record. We think it will have its day at some point.  We played “Barracuda” alongside of Wilco and stuff like that. It shows our sensibility. We see it all as good music and fertile ground.

Talk about your approach on Inevitable Western.
We were going for another originals record. We were incorporating some old analog synths here and there. We wanted to make a straight-up all-original record with no real frills. There’s some electronic stuff at the end of my tune, “Adopted Highway.” Other than that, it’s a quieter record even though there’s some explosive stuff on it. Every time we make a record, we try to balance the next record against it. They’re like companions. We released it the same year as The Rite of the Spring. We didn’t want that to be our sole statement. It ended up being this beautiful, easy record to make. It’s warm and analog-sounding. It has those tones of something that’s less than bombastic.

Can you talk about your contributions? “Gold Prisms Incorporated” has a prog vibe to it.
I had been experimenting over the year with writing these improvisations that aren’t necessarily big head harmonies. They’re almost interval harmonies. There’s an implied melody within it. I did that with this tune called “Anthem for the Earnest” and then on another tune with a similar concept. I like experimenting with this form that has a key change or two but is still this song. You can hear that something is going on melodically but it’s indirect. It has this mid-section that reminds me of the year-and-a-half of dealing with The Rite of Spring. It has those Stravinsky overtones.

Your other two songs on the album are so different.
“Epistolary Echoes” is a nimble jazz tune that has a fast head. It turns into this sixties Beach Boys’ psychedelic melody. The melody returns and it’s over these chords. It’s played with a toy piano. I hear a strange Brian Wilson-y thing at the end and I thought it was an interesting way to end an avant garde piece. “Adopted Highway” is an experimental piece. It’s like soul blues. It’s a cinematic thing. It’s almost a Paris, Texas vibe or a photograph.

It’s a lonesome landscape piece but we play it like it’s fractured blues.

Do you see yourself as a group that can bring younger fans to jazz?
We were tagged early on as the hope for jazz to be interesting. We never thought about ourselves in those terms. We never sat around thinking that we were stirring the flames. What we’ve done is commit to group music. We’ve been a band for 15 years. We could be considered the most working group in jazz history without a lineup change. The Keith Jarrett Trio has been around since the ‘80s but they play eight concerts a year. We play 150 concerts a year. At this point in time, we think jazz should be committed ensemble music like Keith Jarrett. You know that when you come to see The Bad Plus that it’s those three guys who play that way. It has an identity. It’s not anonymous. That is a life commitment. If we believe in that, let’s do it at the highest level we can. That’s what we have contributed. We could care less about saving jazz.

Upcoming 2014 Show Dates











Music Box Supper Club – Cleveland, OH

The Jazz Estate – Milwaukee, WI

The Jazz Estate – Milwaukee, WI

Cliff Bell’s – Detroit, MI

Minneapolis, MN — Dakota Jazz Club

Minneapolis, MN — Dakota Jazz Club

Minneapolis, MN — Dakota Jazz Club

Minneapolis, MN — Dakota Jazz Club

New York, NY — Village Vanguard

New York, NY — Village Vanguard


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].