Members of The Bad Plus. The suit is Ethan Iverson
The Bad Plus is one of the more unique acoustic trios working within the boundaries of what we call jazz; certainly controversial in some quarters, and just as certainly a trio of considerable substance. And therein lies a rub: those jazz-related boundaries are a bit constricting to an outfit whose latest record For All I Care on HeadsUp contains all sorts of covers, from rock to European classical songwriters and composers, not to mention the fact that to some the band doesn’t necessarily swing in the conventional manner (though I would argue that they’ve arrived at a level of gravitational cohesiveness that certainly implies swing on some level), nor do they generally choose to address blues forms as we know them. All that said we haven’t even taken into account the fact that the band doesn’t seem to give two hoots to all that sort of categorization, choosing to go their merry traversing the path they’ve chosen, and if you choose to jump onboard for the ride that’s cool, if not that’s cool too. They’ve further muddied the categorization game by engaging vocalist Wendy Lewis, who at least for now is listed as the core trio having been "Joined by Wendy Lewis".
As that most basic of jazz-identified units — piano, bass and drums — and operating in an instrumentals format, the band has operated in many venues identified as being jazz-friendly, including many of the world’s leading jazz festivals. The members of The Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson, and drummer David King all hail from the upper midwest, specifically Minnesota and Wisconsin. And they are well-schooled musicians all with healthy appetites for improvisation, a thirst for walking the edges in their music, and in at least one case a voracious appetite for imbibing, grasping and ultimately understanding the whys & wherefores of the great jazz musicians and their music, as I’ve learned from sampling their lively blog Do The Math (www.thebadplus.typepad.com). The principle contributor to Do The Math is the band’s pianist Ethan Iverson, who I first met in the Carnegie Hall cafe at intermission of an Ornette Coleman concert a couple of years back. Not only have I been impresssed with Iverson’s thirst for the music but also with his obvious openness to exploring different directions, as he will do in a March 23/24 trio gig at Smalls that included the great Albert "Tootie" Heath, a died-in-the-wool bop/hard bop drummer to be sure, but also a musician flexible enough to relish various encounters outside his identified boundaries. The list of artists Iverson has interviewed for Do The Math is impressive, including a rewarding two-part encounter with one artist who might seem diametrically opposed to what The Bad Plus is about, Wynton Marsalis. Iverson is also not afraid of taking on his detractors, as he proved in a surprisingly collegial encounter with the acerbic writer Stanley Crouch, jazz music’s self-described Hanging Judge. Iverson’s Do The Math interviewees also include the NEA Jazz Master Ron Carter, and Charlie Haden; so this is one webzine that is certainly worth your investigation.
So it just seemed that an exchange with such an intellectual yet down character as Ethan Iverson appeared to be was tailor made for The Independent Ear. Our exchange began with my admitted reservations and downright skepticism when The Bad Plus first broke through and was seemingly being hailed by many fellow writers as the next great step in jazz (this despite the fact that, again, the band has never particularly self-identified as a jazz band).
Willard Jenkins: I will admit to having had a curious initial reaction to The Bad Plus (TBP) (in retrospect "curious" is how I choose to recollect it). At first blush I wondered — and wondered aloud, particularly in the pages of JazzTimes as Iverson noted on Do The Math — about what I felt was an extreme, almost over-the-top level of "hype" associated with The Bad Plus. So many of my writing colleagues appeared to be gushing in their various writings, which caused me to ask some very pointed questions; and part of that stemmed from just not getting it on my first couple of encounters with their first record. I attributed part of that disconnect to the fact that I didn’t feel any particular connection to the songs they selected for their unique interpretations — and maybe that was due in some measure to a generation gap between those of us of a certain vintage and the writers I read who were all over the band from the jump. But then I saw the band at the Montreal Jazz Festival, appreciated what I heard as some basic truth-telling and sincerity in the music and the approach, and above all greatly appreciated what I viewed as the band’s abundant sense of humor — which for me is an essential element. I concluded that here was a band whose best impression is served live. What was the band’s take on the initial reacion in print to your music?
Ethan Iverson: There was a lot of hype. In particular, Esquire, an important mainstream magazine that usually doesn’t cover jazz, said we were going to "make jazz relevant again." That’s a publicist’s dream blurb, but of course none of us in the band said it or believed it! I have always said that I would have been suspicious myself if I heard about "the jazz trio that plays Nirvana" accompanied by Esquire blurbs, etc. As far as the humor goes, you’re right, we do have a strange Midwestern element that is connected to the surreal. Also, Thelonious Monk has been my biggest hero since I was very young; I think our version of humor and surreality comes partly from Monk.
WJ: You’ve been around the music long enough to see the phenomenon where fresh out of the box members of the critical fraternity are all over the music they may even take credit for "discovering" first. However in ensuing seasons that same music, artist or and becomes invariably subject to a vicious sort of backlash. I think one need look no further than someone you’ve now interviewed rather extensively — Wynton Marsalis — to observe that phenomenon. Has the band felt any of that or is your armor so thick and you’re so insulated from criticism at this point that you really could care less what’s written?
EI: Someone said that you can’t believe the good press or the bad press, which is certainly true. I haven’t seen anything about us lately that was particularly vicious, but there was a time that some critics lashed out. However, all my greatest heroes were also controversial too. I am honored to be controversial – it means you are doing something. The only comment that really gets under our skin is the suggestion that we were the product of a corporate record company think tank. No way! We not only have always selected the material we record, but additionally art-directed and sequenced our albums ourself. Even our "rock" producers, Tchad Blake and Tony Platt, were TBP suggestions. It’s fine not to like The Bad Plus, but not okay to assume we are not responsible for the product. Another example: the first press we saw about [current record] For All We Care said the record company told us to get a singer in order to be more "popular." That’s absurd. Reid and Dave and I have been discussing the possibility of working with a singer for years, and we decided it was time. The record company had nothing to do with it. Otherwise, in terms of bad reviews, I think you just have to be happy they are writing about you at all.
WJ: What went into what must have been a critical decision to add vocals to your music?
EI: After several studio albums as a trio, it was time for a collaboration. We have always believed in the power of song, so adding a singer made sense. The album we like to cite as precedent is John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman [Impulse!], where there was the addition of a powerful vocalist who sang directly and beautifully next to an established band sound.
WJ: How does Wendy’s addition in any way, shall we say adjust how you go about determing your repertoire?
EI: There were several covers we had talked about [doing] for years but couldn’t make them work instrumentally. What a relief to have a singer!
WJ: And exactly how did The Bad Plus go about selecting the unusual repertoire for the new record (from the Bee Gees to Ligeti and Stravinsky!)?
EI: We have to love the piece in the original, and then we have to find a way to make it sound like The Bad Plus. Not everything works, of course. The classical pieces were all selected around the million-dollar question: "What classical music will sound good with grooving drums?" [This latter question is something Iverson addresses in a guest column in the March issue of JazzTimes magazine.]
WJ: Do you see yourelves searching high and low for unlikely vehicles, or are you guys just this broad-minded?
EI: It is honestly a pretty natural process. Reid and Dave and I have known each other for twenty years now, and we have a good idea what might work or not in the trio; this goes for everything, not just looking for covers.
WJ: Speaking of broad-minded, I’ve been impresed by the wide range of interview subjects you’ve chosen to quiz on your Do The Math webzine (at www.thebadplus.com). (Who woulda thunk Ethan Iverson would share such a collegial conversation with Wynton or Stanley Crouch for example?)
EI: I have a real passion for jazz, and have never failed to get along with anybody else who shares that passion. But honestly, both Wynton and Stanley would talk to anyone who wanted to discuss serious jazz. They are not really broad-minded, I think, but they are both deeply intelligent and ready to defend the pure jazz tradition at gunpoint.
WJ: In reading your interview with Wynton, particularly the part where you’re listening to music and analyzing it together, it was interesting to read his reaction to "Knozz-Moe-King" (which he declared as "sad") now 22 years removed from that explosive live Blues Alley record. I’ve heard that kind of reaction from musicians as well, where they express a sense of failure despite what their audience may have felt. When you and the band feel something you’ve played just didn’t make it, yet the audience is thrilled with that same performance, what goes through your mind? Do you think that kind of audience reaction to what you may have felt was inferior can tend to make some musicians complacent?
EI: Interesting question! While Wynton always works hard, and I hope that I do too, perhaps complacency can sneak in if everybody’s getting paid, getting house, and the music is not that good. I have seen legends play poorly in expensive jazz clubs where all the tourists applaud the legend, not the music. I’m still relatively young; maybe when I’m older I will have more sympathy for this.
In particular about that "Knozz-Moe-King", though I’m pretty sure Wynton thought that kind of "burn-out" music was not really audience-friendly, which was one reason he changed the band (Herlin Riley replaced Jeff Watts) and began to play more pure swing and blues. He said the audience could connect better with a more swinging approach than the aggressive one.
WJ: Do you ever revisit your past records and performances and cringe?
EI: YES, I hate listening to myself.
WJ: Another thing I’ve been impressed with from reading your posts on Do The Math is how big your ears are. What’s your personal playlist like these days?
EI: Right now I’m listening to a lot of Coleman Hawkins, who I have never listened to enough. There is an inexpensive 4-CD set on Proper called The Bebop Years that is one of the best box sets I have ever gotten. At the other end of the spectrum I love modernist classical composers and have suddenly gotten interested in Gunther Schuller’s difficult but still accesible concert music. (However, I will always endlessly quibble with Schuller’s jazz criticism, which I find valuable but pompous.)
WJ: In a recent Guest Column for JazzTimes magazine you deal with the classical music and jazz conundrum and the fact that you haven’t heard that many successful marriages or fusions of the forms, particularly those that fall closest to Gunther Schuller’s Third Stream, that involve significant or successful drum work (what you refer to in your column as "grooving drums"). I thought of that reference as I recently listened to pianist Donal Fox’ recent quartet record The Scarlatti Jazz Suite Project (recorded at Scullers jazz club in Boston). In addition to his "Scarlatti Jazz Suite" he also plays a Scarlatti aria, his own "Variations On a Bach Fugue", and Schuman’s "Davidsbundler." Fox’s quartet includes the very promising young vibist out of Baltimore, Warren Wolf, bassist John Lockwood and most tellingly (from your column) a very significant drummer, Terri Lyne Carrington. I’m an admitted classical music novice but I would be curious to hear your take on Fox’s efforts in this regard.
EI: I have an album of Fox duets with Oliver Lake that I should listen to again; obviously I should hear this quartet record too. Thanks for the heads-up.
WJ: It seems we share a very positive reaction [for my take scroll down through The Independent Ear] to George Lewis’ insightful history of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) A Power Stronger Than Itself. Judging from your reaction in Do The Math, some of that AACM members’ music was apparently new to you and apparently you’ve pledged to further investigate their enormous output. What have you heard so far from AACM members that’s left a lasting impression?
EI: There’s a lot, and a lot that should be much better known. I’m planning to post a "recommended AACM playlist" on DTM sometime later this year. Craig Taborn hipped me to a record that really blew me away: Space Minds/New Worlds/Survival America by [violinist-composer] Leroy Jenkins. I knew Jenkins played great violin but am really astounded at how this disk documents what an incredible, detailed, and thoughtful composer he was. He passed away just a couple of years ago; I wish I had known sooner to pay greater attention to his work, which is in a class of one.