The Bad Plus sticks to its original mission statement
Although the Bad Plus is a very contemporary piano trio—especially given its penchant for rearranging Radiohead, Aphex Twin, and Black Sabbath tunes—at least one of its three members is passionate about jazz history. That would be pianist Ethan Iverson, who, when he’s not on the road with bassist Reid Anderson and drummer David King, can sometimes be found sitting in with 78-year-old bebop legend Albert “Tootie” Heath or 72-year-old drummer Billy Hart.
Now, these guys are not your typical pensioners. Jazz is one of the few performance styles in which it’s possible to get better with age, and they’re still playing at peak form. As Iverson notes, caught at his New York City apartment minutes before heading out on tour, “There’s a lot of stuff I can learn from them.”
But there’s another reason why Iverson’s having way too much fun hanging out with seniors. Not that long ago, the 40-year-old was the kind of kid who’d rather spend hours alone with the bebop classics than slam-dancing at punk clubs.
“There is some sort of fanboy element to it,” he admits. “To get a chance to work with these guys assuages my adolescent fan’s love of the music.”
Iverson doesn’t think that his extracurricular activities will have too much impact on his main band. “The Bad Plus is sort of a closed system,” he contends. “The first time the three of us played together, there was a certain sound and a certain energy, and sort of a mission statement out of the gate that hasn’t changed in the 13 years that we’ve been together.”
He’s probably correct in that assumption. The trio’s most recent release, 2012’s Made Possible, is as energetic and punchy as its self-titled debut, and although there are no rock covers on the new disc, Anderson’s “Pound for Pound” and King’s “For My Eyes Only” are beautiful wordless songs. Things get a little wilder on Anderson’s “Seven Minute Mind”, which reflects the bassist’s love of electronic music and Steve Reich–inspired minimalism, while Iverson’s own “Re-Elect That” is a turbulent free-form venture into abstraction.
“I really love free jazz and that sort of really experimental style, and sometimes you need to keep pushing ‘Yes’ to free jazz,” the pianist explains. “Like, you need to keep pushing that button. Toggle ‘Yes’ to free jazz; re-elect it.”
Elsewhere, though, his solos can be as rhapsodic as a Frédéric Chopin piano sonata or one of Art Tatum’s swing-era showcases. Iverson readily admits that both the classical composer and the jazz legend are favourites, and sees no conflict in adding their inspiration to a sound that encompasses subtle electronic treatments as well as pop covers and even the occasional flirtation with abstract sound.
“Keith Jarrett once said, ‘The way you do it is you play the things you like, and don’t play the things you don’t like,’ ” he says, referring to another favourite pianist. “And when I heard that, I thought it was actually a pretty good practical guide to how you figure out what’s really you.”