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Bad Luck!

The Bad Plus is playing its first show in Chicago. It is an early-evening concert at the 400-seat Claudia Cassidy Theater in the Loop's Chicago Cultural Center. Reid Anderson, the group's double bassist, has just finished a warm solo full of off-kilter blues runs and deep harmonies, but the crowd response is conflicted. There's some applause, more than the proverbial smattering, but it's tentative and dies with the kind of shushed embarrassment you might hear after the fourth movement of a five-movement symphony. Oops, I guess I wasn't supposed to clap yet. Drummer Dave King laughs at the awkward applause as the full band resumes the tune, an ingratiating, Thelonious Monk-meets-C.W. McCall number called "Keep the Bugs Off Your Glass and the Bears Off Your Ass." As if to clear up any confusion, the applause at the finish is enthusiastic and extended.

It's customary at a jazz show to applaud after every solo. Sometimes the mid-tune, post-solo clap is a spontaneous gesture of passionate enthusiasm. A player has just ad-libbed some soul-stirring phrase, some brilliant high note or rhythmic fillip, and it seems to deserve special acknowledgment. Other times, though, the whole ritual feels like a sham. A band runs through the main melody (or "head") of some bebop chestnut and then takes solos in the standard sequence: horns, piano, and--once or twice a night, almost always at the end of the set--bass and drums. Then back to the head. And people clap after every solo, even when it was one of those perfunctory, give-me-my-sixty-bucks-so-I-can-go-home performances.

There are many young people at the Chicago show, perhaps some who haven't been fully inculcated with jazz-gig protocol. There's a nearly equal number of people over 40, however, a few who were probably clapping after jazz solos before the 30- to-32-year-old band members were toddling in Golden Valley, Minnesota, and Menomonie, Wisconsin. Yet, somehow, the lack of overwhelming applause for Anderson's excellent solo feels like the perfect tribute. The silence, like the clapping, feels genuine--as though everyone has conspired to break the rules.

The trio continues its moody-to-maniacal set, hitting about a half-dozen crescendos of wild, collective improvisation that can be exhilarating or exhausting from moment to moment. Pianist Ethan Iverson careens across the keyboard like Cecil Taylor, poking at the keys like a kid on a manual typewriter or resting on lovely, slightly dissonant chords. Anderson offers big circular lines and Latin-flavored figures ("faux Latin," he later stresses). King calls on a pair of walkie-talkies, a toy voice-changer, and a rich array of shoulder rolls and facial contortions to assist his impressive percussion attack. He jumps around from pattern to pattern, from loud to soft, or from the stand of his hi-hat to a kitchen pot resting on his floor tom with disarming celerity. It can bring to mind Laurence Olivier's interpretation of Hamlet: "This is the story of a man who could not make up his mind." But his restlessness always seems to lead to some cool undiscovered country, to one of those aforementioned soul-stirring phrases or rhythmic fillips that just might inspire spontaneous applause.

 

The commotion surrounding the Bad Plus's Columbia Records album These Are the Vistas, produced by L.A. rock whiz Tchad Blake (Los Lobos, Richard Thompson, Sheryl Crow, American Music Club), would be impressive for any group, but for an instrumental jazz trio, it is a coup--or a "fluke," as King puts it. Press has been glowing and flowing since the album arrived in February, a release celebrated with a sold-out weeklong engagement at the Village Vanguard, New York's touchstone jazz club. New York Times pop and jazz critic Ben Ratliff, who had praised some of Iverson's earlier work, was an early and enormously influential champion of the band, turning in an enthusiastic feature on them and including the group's now impossible-to-find debut album on his 2001 Top Ten list. With the new album, which includes some re-recordings of tunes from the debut, the approbation has come from far and wide. Kind words from specialty publications such as Jazztimes aren't so surprising. But coverage in Newsweek, Rolling Stone, Esquire, the New Yorker, and Blender is the kind of mainstream attention jazz artists usually have to sing--or die--to get.

What's more, the critics seem set on besting each other's out-on-a-limb superlatives. "Where jazz is headed next," wrote Terry Teachout in the Washington Post. "The shape of jazz to come?" asked Rolling Stone, borrowing the title of an Ornette Coleman album dear to the Bad Plus. "One of the most important jazz albums to appear in more than a decade," wrote Stuart Nicholson in Jazztimes (qualified with that vague, cowardly "one of," but still).

The acclaim has been so effusive, it's a good guess the perfunctory backlash has already begun in Internet chat rooms or in the dank practice spaces of jazz's Great Unknown. Jazz has been in need of a makeover, the Bad Plus media squall seems to say, and here is its new face. It's telling that swinging traditionalist Wynton Marsalis, the music's most prominent ambassador for 20 years now, is no longer affiliated with Columbia Records, which now hopes to cross over with the irreverent Bad Plus. And unlike some other avant-leaning jazzers on Columbia, such as Arthur Blythe, Tim Berne, and David S. Ware, these guys might actually sell some records.

 

In the same issue of Jazztimes that profiles the Bad Plus is a piece by polemic jazz critic Stanley Crouch, a friend and ardent supporter of Marsalis. Crouch, who is black, argues that the "white critical establishment" sees "jazz that is based on swing and blues as the enemy and, therefore, lifts up someone like, say, [white trumpeter] Dave Douglas as an antidote to too much authority from the dark side of the tracks." Race is always a tricky issue in jazz--a historically African-American genre economically driven by preponderantly white fans and tastemakers. It's certainly possible that jazz critics, who are indeed mostly white and who often have roots in rock, feel a greater kinship with the Bad Plus's rock-embracing hipster-dorks than they do with similarly genre-bending black jazz artists. And Crouch is right that Marsalis and his "neoconservative" followers are often rashly dismissed as sterile or narrowly retrogressive even when they make inspired and inventive music.

It's also true, though, that the history-minded purism Marsalis engendered at some point started to shoot itself in the wingtips. Faced with the choice between a record that sounded like the mid-'60s Miles Davis Quintet and a slightly less expensive album by the bona fide mid-'60s Miles Davis Quintet, consumers started opting for the original. Naturally, the record labels marked this tendency, and began issuing scores of nicely packaged reissues while dwindling their rosters of current jazz artists. Like Jason Moran, Matthew Shipp, and a number of other artists who are helping attract younger crowds to jazz, the Bad Plus are exciting because their music--even as it displays the influence of Stravinsky and Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor and Hüsker Dü--couldn't possibly have been made forty or even ten years ago.

Hype has its disadvantages, of course, and if you approach a Bad Plus recording or performance looking for a jazz Trinity, your expectations might go unmet. That said, expectation thwarting is what the group is all about. While most piano-bass-and-drums combos make the keyboard the clear lead voice, the Bad Plus push the bass and drums up in the mix, sometimes drowning out the instrumentalist who'd normally call the shots. No one--or everyone--is a supporting player, even as they push and prod each other to take another ad-lib gamble. (A good benchmark for Vista's approach is the album Money Jungle, a lovely, venturesome, and unmistakably cooperative 1962 session between Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach.)

Each member writes, and their compositions eschew the conventional, employing rhythms and harmonies that draw on classical and pop as much as jazz. In the numerical language of jazz theory, the group sidesteps four-four rhythm and II-V chord progressions, playing fast and loose with time and subtly sidestepping the kind of romantic harmonies one hears on Bill Evans's old piano trio albums. Yet they tend to keep their songs short, hummable, sometimes even danceable. This is left-of-center jazz that wants to reach audiences beyond New York's experimentalism-friendly nightspot the Knitting Factory.

Anderson's tunes tend to be lyrical and deceptively simple. The stately melody of his "Everywhere You Turn," for instance, guides the band from a whisper to a cry with a gradual build redolent of U2's "With or Without You." King's "1972 Bronze Medalist" marches and struts like a Wu-Tang Clan track or the Wings hit "Let 'Em In." Iverson's shifting, complex tunes take the longest to sink in, but often offer the richest rewards; the virtuosic parquetry of his "Boo-Wah," all complicated unison rhythms and wide-ranging melodies, might have pleased maverick composer Eric Dolphy. It's actually kind of a drag that the album's least interesting effort, a cover of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" that can't shake the memory of the original performance and production, is the one cut reviewers never fail to highlight.

There've been jazz covers of rock songs before--even a handful of jazzed-up Nirvana songs--but none outside of Cassandra Wilson's considerably more sedate interpretations has generated this much attention. Part of this comes from the strength of the music, and part of it is savvy marketing. Despite Iverson's natty suits, the group looks like a rock band--an untucked shirt, a few piercings, at least one tattoo. The cover of Vistas, a spare painting of a robot with a floppy-disc trunk, looks like something from electronica label Warp Records. The band members sign autographs and chat with teenage fans after the Chicago show. This is pure jazz for rock people.

 

 

On the back cover of These are the Vistas, Iverson is pictured straightening his bowtie, his eyes obscured by a pair of goofy, oversized sunglasses that dominate his shaved head and goateed face. If the glasses or the Aphex Twin piece listed above the photo suggest a certain self-conscious hipness, go back to that bow tie. As bald guys with glasses go, Iverson is much closer to cartoonist Otto Messmer's Poindexter character than, say, Vin Diesel. His voice is high-pitched and nasal, his elocution is careful, his interests arcane. I ask if he was sort of an outsider in high school. "Oh yeah," he answers quickly, lowering his voice. "You have no idea."

Iverson first met Anderson in the late '80s. The pianist was finishing up high school in Menomonie, and the bassist was a freshman at the University of Wisconsin in Eau Claire (Anderson later earned a degree in classical music performance from Philadelphia's prestigious Curtis Institute of Music). Through Anderson, Iverson met King, and discovered that the three had attended some of the same concerts in Minneapolis: McCoy Tyner at the Dakota, for one, and Paul Motian at the Walker Art Center. They played together once in Golden Valley in 1989, a tape of which would be "good blackmail material" according to Iverson's liner notes for the group's self-titled album on Fresh Sound Records. Iverson and Anderson both moved to New York in the early '90s, and have frequently played and recorded together, earning particularly strong reviews for a contemplative trio album, The Minor Passions, with well-traveled post-bop drummer Billy Hart. (Iverson also worked as the musical director for the Mark Morris Dance Group). They reunited with King in 2000, and played their first gig as the Bad Plus in March of that year.

Iverson, a lifelong jazz buff who can also "easily wile away hours comparing recordings of the classical piano repertoire by a half-dozen pianists," had never heard "Smells Like Teen Spirit" before King and Anderson pushed to cover the song. So far, this has been the most widely reported Bad Plus anecdote, presumably because it makes the group's interpretation (at least theoretically) more interesting, and because Iverson's ignorance is an impressive feat of cultural isolation for a 30-year-old white guy. Assuming he's telling the truth--and why wouldn't he be?--Iverson's Nirvana-free '90s is somewhat encouraging. It's proof that no matter how oppressive mass culture seems to be, one can avoid it without becoming a Mennonite (though you might have to at least go without a TV, as Iverson does). And as great as Cobain's music was, it's nice to be reminded that his influence isn't omnipresent, that his iconic status is rooted in part in nostalgia for a youth-culture solidarity that was mythical even in the '60s.

"I tend to never really listen to rock or pop music," says Iverson. "Now, with Reid and Dave and doing this project, I've heard a lot more of it and enjoy a lot of it." His pop appreciation, though, still has its limits. "They put on this Rush tape when we were driving to Columbus, and I have to say, I hated every moment of it. And they were pretty into it, so a certain dichotomy does exist. Since they know it so well, and it seems like the human race has that music covered, I think somehow it's valuable to me in the band--and just in life--to be seeking out the things that people don't know about."

Covers of pop and rock songs make up a small portion of a Bad Plus set list, but they've helped the group get noticed. In addition to "Teen Spirit," Vistas includes an ebullient version of Blondie's "Heart of Glass" and a fairly straight reading of Aphex Twin's pretty "Flim," on which King offers a stunning acoustic variation on the original's skittering drum programming. The group opened its first album with Abba's "Knowing Me, Knowing You," following it with a loose but loving take on the Rodgers and Hart standard "Blue Moon."

"I think musicians of our generation are just doing the most natural thing, which is to explore the music of our lives," says Anderson from his apartment, just a block away from Iverson's. "There was a time where it kind of felt like if you're a jazz musician, you should listen only to jazz, 'cause jazz is the only truth: bullshit like that. Now we're at a point where it's okay to like rock music and jazz and classical and whatever. And I think that's incredibly healthy. That's the jazz tradition really."

 

Indeed, jazz musicians have always used pop songs as springboards for improvisation and invention, often to the dismay of the original composers. The principal source material has been Tin Pan Alley hits and the songs of musical-theater masters such as George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, and Cole Porter. A hundred or so of those songs, mainly from the '20s through the '40s, have become "standards," tunes that working jazz musicians are pretty much required to be able to whip out at any time and in any key. And the chord changes to these songs have often provided the foundation for jazz originals. For example, Monk's "In Walked Bud" takes its changes from Berlin's "Blue Skies," and compositions derived from Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm" are a genre in and of themselves.

Melodically and harmonically rich, the best show tunes continue to provide fertile ground for jazz improv, but after decades upon decades of exploration, they can just as easily be duller than yesterday's mac and cheese. And while a number of post-WWII jazz originals have become gig standbys, one would be hard-pressed to name a rock tune that's become a jazz standard (Frank Zappa's "Peaches en Regalia" was included in the first edition of the Real Book, the jazz jobber's preferred songbook, but you're not likely to hear it at the Artists' Quarter too often).

Which isn't to say jazz artists haven't attempted the challenging task of turning rock songs into jazz. In the '60s, even before the advent of fusion, Beatles songs crept onto jazz albums, with mixed results (stuff like Grant Green's groovy "I Want to Hold Your Hand" holds up well, while something like Ella Fitzgerald's square "Can't Buy Me Love" does a disservice to composer, singer, and listener). In the past ten years, jazz artists have turned to rock, R&B, and modern pop songwriters with increasing frequency. Guitarist Bill Frisell's excellent album Have a Little Faith in Me let Madonna and Dylan shack up with Sonny Rollins and Aaron Copeland, while Herbie Hancock's New Standards took on Babyface and Nirvana. Younger artists such as pianist Brad Mehldau, saxist Greg Osby, bassist Christian McBride, pianist Jason Moran, Sex Mob, and Charlie Hunter's bands have explored similar terrain.

Especially for young jazz fans--who can't be expected to know "Autumn Leaves" from "Spring Is Here"--hearing rejiggerings of contemporary hits is a means of uncovering the somewhat mysterious process of jazz arrangement and improvisation. It can also be a way to lighten up a jazz scene that often seems pompous and conservative, with statesmanlike curator-musicians presenting "America's classical music" and its calcified canon of hoary standards. (If we're looking to subvert some of this high-art stuffiness, it probably won't happen through Mehldau's readings of Radiohead or Osby doing Bjork, but it might through Moran's "Planet Rock" or the Bad Plus's "Knowing Me, Knowing You.")

"Jazz groups have covered rock music, but never in the way that I think rock music is created and played," says the gregarious, animated King. He's sitting (and sometimes standing to illustrate his points) in the St. Paul practice space where he gives occasional lessons and practices with eclectic jazz group Happy Apple and rock bands 12Rods and Love-cars. "When Herbie Hancock gets hold of a rock tune, it becomes this clean, swinging, smoothed-out thing. It doesn't retain any of the actual vibe that a rock musician has." (Perhaps, but in terms of broadening jazz's scope, one might mention that Hancock has made some of the most genuinely funky jazz set to tape, and was quick to embrace hip hop). King also stresses that while the covers might contain humor, they aren't done ironically. "It has to be a song we love, and a song we feel we can improvise with," he says. "When there's ever a question of us doing a Blondie tune or a Neil Young tune, it immediately illuminates the snobbery of thinking it must be a joke or it must be a gimmick if it's Blondie and not Duke Ellington."

King is not above a certain amount of music snobbery himself, though it seems to come more from a passionate belief in the projects he's part of than from a sense of superiority. During our conversation, he stresses what the Bad Plus is not as much as what it is. "This is a very progressive record," he says. "It's not some jam record. It's not riding grooves for fifteen minutes." Later, he says the group set out to "make a record that's different than the loads of jazz records that have been made over the last twenty years that are just like the same thing, where, yes, you've got some technique and you've got this, but is there a concept there?"

 

FOR THE MUSIC WRITER, allmusic.com is a handy but dangerous website. It's full of helpful reviews, biographies, and discographies of recording artists both celebrated and obscure, but it's also sometimes humorously inaccurate. Dave King is there, noted for his work with 12Rods, Happy Apple, and Love-cars, and loads more credits that in fact belong to other musical Dave Kings: session work for Neil Diamond (King denies it); lead vocals for '80s hard rockers Fastway (a dream, but alas, no); even cover design on Hendrix's Axis: Bold as Love (turned in before King was born, but a great résumé builder all the same).

King has yet to back up Neil Diamond, but earlier this year he recorded with Jeff Beck, and later played some dates with the onetime Yardbird in Paris. King, like the rest of the Bad Plus, has been a professional musician his whole life, mostly in the Twin Cities, but also in Los Angeles, New York, and wherever his various bands have taken him. The Bad Plus visited Spain and Italy late last year, and spent early '03 in the British Isles. After its St. Paul dates, the group will hit the West Coast and expects to be touring throughout the summer.

Staying in Minneapolis has probably cost the versatile, highly employable King some income. "It certainly has been [a financial sacrifice], but I kind of believe in an esoteric, fate-driven reality," says King. "I've met some key people here that I think are some of the greatest musicians in the world. I started to really believe in the idea of bands, not just being somebody's sideman and climbing those ladders in New York."

A number of those at or near the top of that ladder were on hand for some of the Bad Plus's February sets at the Vanguard. For example, drummers Paul Motian and Joey Baron were there, which delighted and slightly spooked King. Iverson says he worries sometimes that King is taken for granted in Minneapolis, and says that some of New York's ace drummers are "almost bitter and offended" that King would choose not to live among them.

Despite the attention lavished on the Bad Plus, its surprised members ("shocked," says Anderson; "humbled," says King) aren't exactly in fat city yet, though they might soon be able to find a modest place nearby. The Columbia deal came with a cash advance, but as Iverson puts it, "It wasn't the sort of thing where I started my art collection.

"But we're hopeful," adds the most renowned jazz pianist in Menomonie history. "I do think that we'll be able to make a proper career with this band. Of course that doesn't mean a lot of money, it's not gonna be like rock stars or anything like that." I remember these words as I watch the group pound and even swing through "Teen Spirit." The two Bad Plus recordings of the song failed to win me over. I kept thinking of this weird guy named D.J. Lebowitz who used to play novel solo-piano versions of punk-rock songs such as the Dead Kennedys' "Holiday in Cambodia." At the Chicago Cultural Center, though, the tune is a showstopper, fearsome and ecstatic. No, not like rock stars or anything like that--just a cool variation.


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