The Bad Plus (US)

Interviews with Reid Anderson & Dave King

It was something of a bombshell, when The Bad Plus announced, a few months ago that their long-running 17 years of stability was heading for a disturbance. Not that their music itself is particularly stable, but the relationship with departing pianist Ethan Iverson goes back for nearly two decades, the news of his leavetaking bringing to an end one of jazz music’s most enduring band line-ups.

Well, not for a while yet, as Iverson will be keeping up a commitment to this New York trio’s 2017 datesheet, including an appearance at the Moers Festival on 4th June. The blood can’t be so bad, unless the threesome will be inhabiting separate dressing rooms..!

Even so, Iverson declined to be interviewed for this piece, musing that it no longer seems appropriate to represent The Bad Plus verbally, especially as bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King have already confirmed his successor, in the form of another pianist, Orrin Evans. So, the band are inhabiting an unusual position where Iverson will still be playing with them for a substantial series of 2017 gigs, whilst his colleagues have half a mind tilted towards a future existence, devoting some of the time to ‘training sessions’ with Evans. It’s not often that a personnel change is so thoroughly planned in advance, as Evans won’t be inducted until 1st January 2018. Iverson’s last gig will be the night before: a New Year’s Eve session at New York’s Village Vanguard club.

The other strange Bad Plus circumstance is that their most recent album, It’s Hard, features a return to the approach that initially grabbed much of their first media attention. It’s entirely comprised of ‘modern standards’, tunes or songs that are arriving from the realms of rock, pop, or electronica. A more recent pool of significant composition than the old jazz or Broadway standards that customarily make up the materials for interpretation and improvisation.

I ask Anderson about their choice of Evans, and whether another instrument was considered as a replacement. “In theory, we could have gotten a guitarist,” he ponders. “But Orrin is an incredible pianist, and he’s also a good friend. It wasn’t something we really had to think about. It’s an obvious choice, and he was willing to do it, so it all came together. I’ve known Orrin since maybe 1993. We’ve played together a lot, actually. I was living in Philadelphia at that time, and Orrin’s from there, so we did a lot of playing around Philly.”

King is similarly enthusiastic about the Evans response to their collective ideal. “We’ve know Orrin for 25 years,” he says. “Just hearing him playing our music, people play under that umbrella differently, there’s a freeing energy to it, and Josh Redman experienced that, playing with us. We look at this as another extension of the family of our music, and we’re putting together a bunch of new music, of course…”

It looks like this might have been the end of The Bad Plus. “There was only one person we thought of, and that was Orrin,” King continues. “We said, if Orrin wants to do it, we’ll continue, otherwise we wouldn’t have done it.”

King already has a fuller datesheet than Anderson, playing on the road with multiple combos, but he still feels happy about committing to the Bad Plus schedule. “We thought we would either shut it down, or if Orrin wanted to do it, we would continue. He was the only person we thought of, both personally, and in his playing.”

“Dave and I have gotten together with Orrin,” Anderson continues. “We’ve had a couple of rehearsals, just dipping our toes in the water. It’s great, but it’s definitely going to be different. When you change ⅓ of anything, especially after 17 years of the three of us doing this, we’ve really developed a sound over that time, and that is going to change. Orrin is an incredible pianist, he has a great spirit as a performer. I think that there’s going to be a really positive energy in the music. I can’t, of course, predict, but I have an idea of how things are going to go…”

The newer threesome will be recording an album in September. “Orrin’s not filling in for Ethan,” says King. “So he’s expected to be part of the collective. What we’re doing is based on the tunes, and what people do when there’s no leader. At the end of the day, Orrin is an eccentric player as well [as Ethan], and he comes from a complex, diverse space, in terms of players that have influenced him. He’s been a fan of the band for many years, and he’s a close friend of the band. He came in and played, and the tunes just had a new life. Reid has played with him the most, but I’ve known him as a person for a long time, and I really like his playing. When Reid and I were talking about continuing, it was really just that simple. That decision wasn’t difficult. It was more like: will he want to do it?, but he said ‘yes’ immediately, so we thought ‘wow’, maybe that’s meant to be..!”

For their Moers gig, the band don’t seem to have any special end-of-chapter set-lists planned so far. “Like we always do, we’ll play some music from the latest record,” says Anderson. “We have a pretty large repertoire to draw from at this point, so we’ll mix and match. We’ll be doing what we’ve always done.”

As the latest album is made up from compositions by Kraftwerk, Prince, Johnny Cash and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (amongst many more), there’s the strong likelihood that their Moers set will feature a greater amount of covers, harking back to the trio’s approach during the early Plus days. There came a time when the they stepped back from this tendency, to underline their strong suit of original material, but perhaps in this last Iverson year, the Plus will manage to balance these sides equally. This 2016 album isn’t particularly a full-circle statement, although it does tend to impart the trio’s lengthy time-period with a feeling of appropriate conclusion. “Ethan’s departure had not been determined at the point when we made the record,” Anderson reveals. “It was safe to go back into doing some cover songs, and not be pigeonholed as a band that only does cover songs. We usually keep it to two or three covers. The rest is original music. We might throw in one of the older covers, from time to time.”

This could perhaps involve unearthing the works of Nirvana, Black Sabbath or the Aphex Twin . “We usually just write the set-list a few minutes before we go onstage, and just play whatever we feel like doing.”

King says of covers: “That’s so much less controversial now. We were one of the originators of that form, taking music that’s from a younger generation, and improvising on it.” However, both Anderson and King concur that the next album will contain all-original compositions, including some by Evans. “The whole point of The Bad Plus is group music,” states Anderson. “We’re there to combine, to have a sound of three people playing. We’ve had the opportunity to do that over a very long period, relative to other jazz groups.” 

It seems likely that there will be an initial phase of honing the new trio construction, before they embark on any ‘outside’ collaborations. In recent years, the Plus have been working with guest players, notably the saxophonist Joshua Redman. “All of us are going to bring in new music, and record a new album” says Anderson. “We do have a body of work. Dave and I have written most of the music of The Bad Plus, and we’re going to keep playing that music. Orrin has a lot on his plate, there’s a lot of music to learn, but he’s up to the task.”

“I like to write with specific people in mind,” says Anderson. “So now that Orrin’s going to be playing, I’ll be thinking of him, and writing to his strengths. We’re individuals, but this is a collective art form. Everybody is significant.”

King considers the leavetaking of Iverson: “We’ve known each other for so long that it’s really not a big deal. For us, Ethan wants to do other stuff, and he said that, and we said that we’re going to continue with Orrin, and he said ‘okay’. It’s our decision to keep going, and what we’ve gotta go out and do is fucking rock it. If we show up and it’s not that great, then that’s on us..!” 

Clearly an exciting time is coming in 2018, but now, in 2017, there’s an equal excitement provided by the countdown to Ethan Iverson’s departure, and the ending of what has been an extended era of magisterial Bad Plus music. The unpredictability will continue, and the band’s followers are inherently adaptable, as displayed by their taste in this band’s always-evolving output...

Martin Longley