Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music

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BAD PLUS, The

A jazz trio of bassist Reid Anderson (b 15 October 1970, Minneapolis MN), pianist Ethan Iverson (b 11 February 1973, Menomonie WI) and drummer David King (b 8 June 1970, Robinsdale MN). Note the alphabetical order: the trio is a collective with three leaders. They had known one another as teenagers but had played together only once, in 1990. Iverson moved to New York City in 1991 and studied piano with Fred Hersch and Sophia Rosoff; in 1998-2002 he was music director of the Mark Morris Dance Group, while Anderson was freelancing in New York and King in Los Angeles. When they got together for a club date in Minneapolis in 2000 they immediately hit it off, planning a second gig and a recording session.

They are all composers, with nearly 150 tunes registered among them at BMI; Iverson, steeped almost entirely in jazz, is the more cerebral, while Anderson's music is more lyrical and King's described as rhythmic and surreal. They immediately became known for playing covers of pop/rock songs by everybody from ABBA and Blondie to Led Zep, including e.g. the avant-gardish electronic Aphex Twin; they contributed their version of 'Karma Police' to Exit Music: Songs with Radio Heads 2006, a tribute to Radiohead on Rapster/ Barely Breaking Even. But the pop/rock covers are less than 20% of their repertoire.

At their first gig they played a Nirvana tune and have since recorded it twice. In 2003 a young couple of our acquaintance heard the trio's 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' on their first Columbia CD and asked, 'Why are they ruining it?' These youngsters had never heard Lester Young playing George Gershwin, let alone anyone covering Curt Cobain. Similarly, however, some critics have been confused by The Bad Plus, one expert complaining that 'the joke is wearing thin.' It is not, of course, a joke.

There are two aspects of this: to begin with, jazzpeople have always played pop songs. To take just Rodgers & Hammerstein, Miles Davis did something wonderful with 'Surrey With The Fringe On Top', John Coltrane turned 'My Favorite Things' into a hypnotic trance, and in May 2008, Iverson, playing with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian at New York's Village Vanguard, reworked the usually syrupy 'This Nearly Was Mine' into something wistfully lovely. Secondly, however, unlike 'the great American songbook', modern pop songs do not have the kind of chord structures that lend themselves to improvisation (or, all too often, noodling). The trio are also conscious of the words to the songs (as Lester always was), and the words to 'Surrey With The Fringe On Top' do not have a lot of relevance to modern audiences, while modern pop songs are full of contemporary attitudes. As jazz musicians have always played classic pop songs, so to turn their backs on today's music might be an unjazz attitude.

As for the music itself, when the trio first played 'Teen Spirit', Iverson had never heard of it, leading the others to wonder what planet he'd been living on, and then immediately wanting to know what he would do with it. Iverson later said in an interview that Curt Cobain's music is full of 'raw, open fifths', and what he tries to do is stack them in different ways, as Stravinsky might have done. The Bad Plus actually like these songs, and find building blocks in them. Even more to the point, their playing together is equal to any task; they favor group improvisation rather than strings of solos. Another track on that Columbia CD, 'Keep The Bugs Off Your Glass And The Bears Off Your Ass', is an intensely rhythmic King tune, and toward the end the trio start slowing down so slowly in unison that you are not sure at first that they are slowing down at all. That kind of precision in any ensemble is remarkable.

Their albums began with The Bad Plus 2001 on Fresh Sound; Authorized Bootleg 2001 was self-released and is now out of print. Columbia Records heard them at the Village Vanguard and signed them: These Are The Vistas 2003, the cover an adaptation of Stephen Collier's painting 'Robonaut', which became the band's logo, printed on T-shirts, was followed by Give 2004, Suspicious Activity? and Blunt Object - Live In Tokyo 2005. Suspicious Activity? was released with a notorious anti-piracy device on the CD that screwed up people's computers, leading partly to the band's regretfully leaving that label. Prog 2007 was recorded in Minnesota and came out on Do the Math/ Heads Up/ Emarcy. The producer of the Columbia studio CDs was Tchad Blake, who achieved wonderful clarity; the label change also marked a producer change to English engineer/mixer Tony Platt (AC/DC's Back In Black, Bob Marley, the Stones, The Who and Led Zeppelin), who is said to get closer to the trio's live sound. For All I Care 2008 on Heads Up included a vocalist, Wendy Lewis, on eight of the 12 tracks; she had worked with King in Minneapolis in the 1990s. The new album exhibited their usual thoughtfulness on interpreting Pink Floyd, Yes, the Bee Gees etc, while also taking on classical composers Milton Babbitt, György Ligeti and Igor Stravinsky.

King is a lynch-pin of the Minnesota indie-rock scene, playing with Love-Cars, Halloween, Alaska, and Happy Apple. Anderson's New York work has included quartet albums Dirty Show Tunes '98 and Abolish Bad Architecture '99 on Fresh Sound, and a quintet set The Vastness Of Space 2000 on FSNT.

Iverson’s albums as a leader or co-leader include School Work 1993 on Mons, a quartet set with Dewey Redman, and (the rest all on Fresh Sound New Talent) trios Construction Zone and Deconstruction Zone 1998 with Anderson and drummer Jorge Rossy, The Minor Passions 1999 with Anderson and Billy Hart on drums, and more quartets sets Live At Smalls, Guilty and Lazy Afternoon, all 2000. His recordings as a sideman include The Billy Hart Quartet 2005 on High Note. He is also a music journalist; his blog is full of good things at thebadplus.typepad.com/dothemath, and his interview with Billy Hart at billyhartmusic.com is a fascinating look at post-WWII jazz from the inside.