The Bad Plus

Based on sheer intensity in the studio and in performance, The Bad Plus sounds like one of the ballsiest rock bands around, which is a little odd, considering it’s a jazz trio.

So, what separates the Minneapolis-bred, New York City-based band from countless other jazz trios around the world? The members play hard, like a rock band. They make decisions and write songs as a group. They name-check noisy indie rockers instead of jazz contemporaries. And they talk over each other during conference call interviews.

The members, David King on drums, Ethan Iverson on piano and Reid Anderson on bass, spoke with POLLSTAR from a conference room at their label, Columbia Records, after a meeting with an A&R rep.

“We keep trying to explain to them that this avant-garde music thing is going to take off sooner or later, and they just need to keep pumping money into it,” King said. “We’re trying to sell them on an opening track that’s 15 minutes long for the next record. I don’t know how they’re taking it.”

“They said something about it’s not radio friendly,” Reid offered. “So screw them.”

Oh yeah, the other thing very non-traditional jazz about The Bad Plus: nearly everything they say is a joke, taken as far as possible with a straight face. Until the chuckling starts. When POLLSTAR explained that it was a business magazine, written by and for professionals with little time for laughter, the honest story emerged.

Anderson and King began playing in Minneapolis rock bands in junior high, moving through various forms of jazz through high school. Iverson became involved some time later, until he and Anderson moved to New York, and King fled the harsh winters for Los Angeles.

All three, each involved in various projects, kept in contact through the ’90s and decided to regroup in 2000.

“We decided it was ridiculous that we hadn’t just come together and formed a band, something unique in jazz, an actual group, a democracy where everyone writes,” King said. “So, about three and a half years ago, we said, ‘Let’s just do whatever it takes, even though we live in different cities, to make sure that we could make this happen.’

“We ended up paying for plane tickets, getting on the road, rehearsing, doing whatever it took, turning other things down, to stay together and develop this sound. … We’ve been playing on and off together for about 15 years, but really regularly for three and a half.”

King eventually moved back to Minneapolis and The Bad Plus centered its activity there and in the Big Apple.

The Bad Plus

“We would play the Knitting Factory or rent rooms in New York, place ads, do everything ourselves, self promotion, which is what we’ve always done,” King said. “That’s another reason why we feel closer to the DIY indie rock thing, because that’s what we’ve always done.”

The band then headed to tour Europe, where the members had promoter contacts, and recorded an album for a tiny Spanish label. Over the next couple years, The Bad Plus was too busy touring abroad to cover the States, where they were still relatively unknown outside of New York.

That changed with the release of These Are The Vistas, which has garnered critical praise from the jazz and rock press.

“I think there’s a really strong love of rock music in the band, and I think some of that energy comes across when we perform live, too. It’s definitely not a contained jazz energy; it’s a very physical performance. It can be quite loud, considering our instrumentation,” Anderson said.

“There’s more pop sensibility but there’s still extreme avant-garde moments at times, especially live,” King added. “I think at the heart of it, we have a little more in common with someone like Sonic Youth than, say, Wynton Marsalis.”

While that approach hasn’t won them any fans at mainstream jazz radio (King said they prefer to be on college radio anyway, right next to bands like godspeed you! black emperor), it does mean they’re not limited to playing the dwindling number of jazz houses across the country.

“We’ve been really fortunate with this band and this impact that we’ve been having that the main rooms are opening up for us,” Iverson said. “This fall, we’re doing a main room tour opening for Garage A Trois.”

“The thing about this band that feels good to us, when we get out and perform, is that, we’ve played all kinds of venues at this point, from large outdoor venues, rock clubs

it’s been really fulfilling to see our music get across in all the different venues,” Anderson said. “I think a lot of quote/unquote jazz bands would have trouble playing in rock clubs. Somehow our music seems to fit there.”

In lieu of jazz standards, the band has peppered its oeuvre with inspired covers of rock songs like Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” which have brought in curious new fans. The members aren’t worried about becoming known as “the jazz band that does Nirvana songs.” In fact, they are so not worried about it, it’s probably best not to even ask the question. Trust us.

“I think that the issue of typecasting becomes the artist’s responsibility,” Iverson said. “Suppose you’re an actor. … You’ve done four Westerns, and the only other part you’ll ever get asked to do is Westerns. We are who we are. That’s not going to change. Every paper in the world could say tomorrow we only play Nirvana. But that’s not going to make us only play Nirvana.”

“One other thing,” King added, “is that we are now only going to do Westerns.”