Variations on a Genre
Maverick jazz trio the Bad Plus will make you listen differently
By Bliss Bowen
Tradition vs. innovation: It’s a continually raging debate in jazz.
The Bad Plus seem to firmly side with innovation, with improvisation-inspired originals and wildly unpredictable reinventions of pop hits by artists ranging from Nirvana and Heart to Peter Gabriel, the Flaming Lips and Johnny Cash. (Not to mention Stravinsky, whose “The Rite of Spring” inspired the trio’s 2014 album of the same name.)
Yet they recorded a meeting-of-the-minds album with saxophonist Joshua Redman (2015’s “The Bad Plus Joshua Redman”) that evolved out of live shows and was spiritually true to jazz’s vital exploratory essence. And Bad Plus “covers” of other artists’ songs not only approach rewriting, they are also firmly grounded in jazz tradition and language.
Pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King perform at The Broad Stage on Sunday night, part of a tour promoting their most recent “covers” set, “It’s Hard,” released in August by Sony Masterworks. But with more than a dozen (largely original) studio, concert and collaborative albums to their credit, they have a substantial catalogue to plumb. It’s a body of work impressive for its musicianship and provocative scope.
Iverson, who also authors the deeply thoughtful blog “Do the Math” (ethaniverson.com), recently discussed deconstruction, creativity, and jazz’s past and future.
One of the things I value about the Bad Plus is that you guys make me listen differently. When you’re rearranging another artist’s material, is the fun or creative challenge for you in deconstructing the song and listeners’ expectations, or do you get an emotional charge out of the song itself?
There has to be a reason for the Bad Plus to play any of those songs. We aren’t making fun of the songs we cover, but I think there has to be room in the song for another kind of complex emotion to evolve.
On the other hand, this is something that musicians have done for centuries. If you play a tune that the audience knows and provide variations on it, that’s a way that everybody can follow what you’re doing.
Mozart and Chopin and Liszt all wrote their variations on famous opera tunes of the day, and if they were at a party, they’d provide some more. In jazz it really began with Louis Armstrong taking on pop of the day, and a lot of those tunes became jazz standards and coin of the realm in terms of how you play jazz.
Many artists cover other artists’ songs because they connect with the lyrics; others insist you should never cover something unless you do it completely differently; and then there’s Lucinda Williams, who once wrote in a songbook that doing someone else’s song should mean you’re saying, “I wish I’d written this.” Where would you place the Bad Plus on that spectrum of beliefs?
Almost all jazz musicians play other people’s tunes; that’s just part of how the music works. If we’re playing TV on the Radio, we know we can’t play it like them, partially because of the tropes you’re talking about. But I can play a gig tonight with any jazz musician in the world and we can play three hours of music from the standard repertoire, all of which none of us wrote. So that’s the baseline, I would say, for our perspective; jazz cats always play standards and other people’s tunes. …
It wouldn’t serve us to do an obscure Crowded House song. You know, you want to do [“Don’t Dream It’s Over”]. There are probably a lot of Pink Floyd songs that only Pink Floyd mavens know, but let’s just do “Comfortably Numb.” We like going with the obvious.
Scott English and Richard Kerr owe you big thanks; liberating “Mandy” from the production schmaltz of Barry Manilow’s recording shows how graceful the core melody is.
[Laughs.] It’s a great song, for sure. There’s a powerful compositional intent in that song. All the songs we play have real compositional integrity; otherwise, we wouldn’t play them. “Mandy” is probably a perfect example of something that has hidden depth, once you take it away from its primary association.
You recorded “The Beautiful Ones” before Prince died. Did it feel more challenging to redo since the band has roots in Minneapolis?
I think that song did go through a few iterations in terms of the arrangement. The thing about that song that makes it hard, it’s sort of like a soul number. And soul music is harder to put on piano. So when we realized that Reid could play the melody on the bass, which is a more soulful instrument than the piano, that unlocked the rest of the arrangement.
Some might consider it arrogant to so drastically rearrange popular songs; but maybe it’s more true that it requires not just detachment but also humble understanding of what’s needed to write a good song. How important do you think humility is to free creativity?
I think in most of the arts, the truth is that one perspective and the total opposite are very nearly coexisting. So in this case, yes, you’ve gotta be humble, you’ve gotta be like, “I love the song, I love how it goes,” but then you have to be supremely egotistical — “I’m going to make it my own now.” They coexist. Hopefully the end result makes some sort of sense.
Like blues, jazz gets referred to sometimes as a dying art form. Do you believe that’s true, or is it in a state of evolution, similar to the shifts that occurred from big band swing to bop to fusion?
I’m actually less positive on that topic than many musicians. I don’t feel like jazz is all that vital compared to the great jazz of past. It’s up to us who really still love it to play as well as we can, to play the most engaging music we can, to try to keep it going. But I also [agree with] the argument that it was a 20th-century form. So who knows? I’m in it to win it, but I’m also not super positive.
We’re hearing interesting jazz / hip-hop hybrids from artists like Robert Glasper and Terrace Martin. Do you think of that as jazz, or a distinct form of its own that’s developing?
I’ll tell you this much: I’m really glad they’re there, because without the black community, there’s no jazz. That was always what jazz was, this American project that was really driven by the black community. Wynton Marsalis really tried to help reclaim that with the Young Lion movement. Now we’ve got Glasper, Martin and other guys trying to explain that. I’m all for it. However, whether any of the music any of us is making now will hold up to John Coltrane or Miles Davis remains to be seen.
The Bad Plus perform at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 15, at The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. Tickets are $50 to $85. Call (310) 434-3200 or visit TheBadPlus.com.