A brief glance at world history proves that every empire has an expiration date. No matter how large or powerful it may be, no matter how long it rules, every superpower must eventually cede to time. And just like other celebrated conquerors of the past, Jazz—that wildly popular yet sophisticated amalgam of Western harmony, African rhythm, and American attitude—lived fully and fought bravely before succumbing to a young new villain, Rock & Roll, in the late 1970s.

Not all hope is lost, however. In small clubs and practice rooms all over the globe, masters young and old still fight the good fight, ensuring that arcane subjects like improvisation, instrumental mastery, and advanced harmony will never die. But to understand the true nature of jazz, you have to know how to search for the good stuff. And our subject this day, instrumental jazz trio The Bad Plus, is one of the leading purveyors of that good stuff.

Their major-label debut, These Are the Vistas (Columbia Records, 2003), took the world by storm with music that—as Wikipedia put it—“combines the improvisatory aspect and complexity of jazz with the power, attitude, and volume of rock.” (Those jazz re-arrangements of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Heart of Glass”

were pretty ill as well!)

    As The Bad Plus prepares to unveil their fifth album—their first with a guest vocalist—they continue to preserve the true nature of jazz while infusing hip-hop, rock, punk, and avant-garde flavors into a distinctive sound. We were lucky enough to catch up with them during a three-night stint at the Catalina Club in Los Angeles, where we took the opportunity to acquire a better understanding of this endangered species. 

We’re setting up for the photo shoot as drummer Dave King arrives. After escorting his family into the venue, he sits in the corner of the courtyard reading a copy of the Los Angeles Times. Bassist Reid Anderson joins him just as smoke begins pouring from King’s ears.

“Aww—what the fuck is this?” Anderson has barely had a chance to put his stuff down before King angrily hands him the newspaper. Anderson looks calmly bemused as he takes a seat and reads the paper, and just then, pianist Ethan Iverson, dressed in a dark, layered suit, approaches his band mates, a smile on his face.

“Oh I know you love this shit,” begins a salty, sarcastic King.

“I don’t think it’s a bad thing,” Iverson says. “I mean, it kinda has a nice ring to it—maybe we should change our name to ‘The Wisconsin Trio.’” His words infuriate King as only a lifelong band mate could.

The source of all the drama is a review in the LA Times that claims the band is from Wisconsin. Except for Iverson, who really is from Wisconsin, the rest of the band is from Minnesota, and that’s where they met. The back-and-forth between King and Iverson rages on for the duration of the photo shoot, but an indifferent Anderson seems to be fighting a losing struggle to stay awake, a victim, perhaps, of the band’s grueling tour schedule (from here, they were on to New York and then to a European tour). 

It’s a whole different story the moment he picks up his upright bass, however. The show we saw was their fifth—yes, fifth—45-minute set of a three-night stint at the Catalina, but the way they swaggered onstage and tore the place down was electrifying. Talking to King after the show only confirmed our belief that Anderson, Iverson, and King are jazz musicians in the old-school sense—passionate improvisers who are inspired by a wide range of sources and have strong opinions on the state of their chosen art form.

Story By Jonathan D’Auria  Photos By Jon Mancuso

First of all, it was so good to see you guys live again. It seems like you’ve gotten better and somehow hungrier.

Thanks, man. We’re constantly trying to push what we do, and for that matter, understand why we do what we do. It’s easy to lose sight of your purpose when you’ve been doing something for so long. I’m glad it’s still fresh.

What have you guys been working on recently?

Well, we have a new record coming out in February that we recorded back in April called For All I Care. It’s actually a big jump for us because we have a vocalist on this one, a beautiful singer named Wendy Lewis. It really came together nicely.

Was it difficult working around a vocalist and being mindful of her space?

To tell you the truth, we went in and did what we always do. Wendy is a phenomenal talent who had no problem keeping up with us, so it allowed us to still be our weird selves.

What’s the music like?

It’s all covers, some classical music, and some modern tunes. We’re doing some U2, some Yes, some Roger Miller, “Lithium” by Nirvana, “Comfortably Numb” by Pink Floyd—it should be a fun record to listen to.

So, why jazz? What compels you guys to work in that format?

It’s the improvisation, the spontaneity.  It’s part of a personality—or maybe a disorder—that we all embody. Most musicians get up on stage every night and play the same set for 20 years. We can’t do that. The improvisation and excitement of jazz just keeps turning us on and is probably what makes us continue doing this. Jazz is about learning something, knowing something, and then letting it go. That way, it comes out naturally and unforced.

How much of your performance is rehearsed and how much is improvised?

Anytime you see us live, all the tunes are there. You’ll hear the verses and the choruses and the hooks, but it’s the spaces in between that allow us to play around. Night after night it’s different, though. We try to push the songs to their limit every single set and they always comes out differently.

You guys seamlessly go in and out of emotional, technical, and dynamic changes in your songs and sets. How do you communicate when the changes will occur?

You know, when you collaborate with anyone or with any group of people for long enough, you figure out their tendencies and their mental patterns. Sometimes we have obvious signals for transitions or free-form parts, but we really just listen to each other and pick up what the other people are going to do. It becomes somewhat of an unspoken language.

How would you describe the music of The Bad Plus?

We’re a modern piano trio. We’re very honest with the term “modern.” I like to think of us as a true band of its time. I mean, we don’t kid ourselves—you can’t pretend you’ve never heard hip-hop or electronic music; you just have to stay true to what you do and let your own music influence you. Keeping our music acoustic is another factor in that; everything is honest and “real” when it’s organic.

Do you feel that there is a genuine lack of good jazz nowadays? It seems as if jazz is a bit less popular with this generation.

It might be, but it’s the same as it’s always been—you really have to search for the good shit. It’s not shoved down our throats like other music is, but that makes it more rewarding. When someone becomes conscious of jazz and shows interest in it, it almost always takes them on their own path to find what they like. Sometimes you gotta thumb through a pile of old records to find it. There’s a lot of good shit going on in the jazz world right now.

How did you guys start out in Minnesota?

We grew up together and learned to play together at a very young stage in our musical careers, and then we moved away from each other for about 10 years when we hit our twenties. I moved to L.A. and began work as a session player, Reid moved to New York to play, and Ethan became the musical director of the Mark Morris Dance Group. After a long time apart, we got back together and played some shows, and it just kinda clicked immediately. It was so easy. We had no agenda, and we just wanted to play music together. I’ve found that the most successful things in life aren’t forced.

Were you surprised when These Are the Vistas received as much acclaim as it did?

Absolutely, but at the same time, we knew what we did when we made that record. We were very hungry musicians and we wanted to come out swinging immediately.

The first time I heard the album open up with the drums in the beginning of “Big Eater” I was hooked, and I think a whole lot of people were, too.

Thanks, man. That’s kinda what we were going for. We understand that people have short attention spans and it kinda plays to our favor that we move around a lot and get bored easily. We thought that song was the perfect way to introduce ourselves.

It definitely was. So what’s your band dynamic like when you’re not on stage?

We grew up together, so there are no real surprises. Reid and I are really close; we hang out all the time when we’re on tour. Ethan is close with us, too, but he keeps to himself a lot. He has his spy novels and his jazz and that keeps him going. 

What’s your writing process like?

We write separately, but we arrange it all together. We’re very democratic, so we all get a vote in how things are going to shape up. I think that’s part of the jazz tradition—composing pieces and then letting them fall into shape. Actually, the most time-consuming thing we do is reinterpret and cover songs. We love to take something that we dig and just totally rearrange it our style. That’s also a big part of jazz music.

How does that translate into the recording process?

Well, just like in our writing, we don’t force anything. It’s all played live—that’s it. What you hear on the records is what happens in the studio. We usually get records done in a couple weeks.

There’s a rumor that you guys only do one take in the studio. Is that true?

Oh yeah, definitely. It’s rare that we do more than one take per song.

Damn, that’s amazing. Does that create more pressure for you guys?

Not at all. This is what we do; we should be able to hit it the first time. It’s not like doctors get to do second takes on surgeries, right?

What keeps music your main passion in life?

The idea that there’s still infinite stuff out there to explore and discover. Music is endless. Truthfully, it’s also the best way for me to support myself. I’ve worked in every factory and every piece-of-shit job there is, and nothing compares to music. It’s amazing having this as my gig. It’s like I’m having a dream, only I know it’s going on.

What do you think makes music such a powerful platform in art and all fields?

Well, hopefully the players can transfer the way it makes them feel to the listeners. It always makes me feel good, and I know when I write something that will make someone else feel good. The audience makes us feel good, so it’s really a big cycle of transfer.

Describe a Bad Plus show from your perspective.

It’s different every night—sometimes it’s pulling teeth and some nights it clicks. We usually just strap it on and go. It’s hard to know what’s gonna happen. We are extremely affected by the outcome of the show, though. We’re the band that walks off stage feeling bad if the set was bad.

What are you listening to right now?

Everything. Old country music, TV on the Radio, [Ukrainian composer] Valentin Silvestrov. That guy makes some fucked up avant-garde music! I’m going crazy listening to him.

Was jazz your first love?

Definitely not. I didn’t get into jazz until I was in my teens. Before that, I was all about John Bonham and all types of music. I’m glad, too, because I might have been more limited if jazz was my first thing.

One of my favorite things you’ve done—and one of the heaviest things I’ve ever heard—is the series of hits at the end of “Physical Cities.” Is there a method to those hits?

That’s actually a long figure. It was pretty tricky to get down, but now it clicks pretty easily.

And finally, what do you want listeners to take away from your music?

That it’s pure and that there’s nothing else like it out there. We’ve been around for a while and we know who we are. Even if you don’t like us, we’ll still be doing what we do, and as long as we physically can do it, we’ll be creating music. We’ll probably just get weirder and more “out there” as we start going senile.

                                                                                                        `                  -GX-

The Bad Plus– “And Here We Test Our Powers Of Observation” (live on Jools Holland)

The Bad Plus– “Physical Cities”

The Bad Plus: Reid Anderson (Bass), Dave King (Drums),  Ethan Iverson (Piano)

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