Bad Plus, The (Contemporary Musicians)
Avant-garde and unpredictable, The Bad Plus is an acoustic trio of composer-musicians that boasts a cutting-edge repertoire of original jazz-rock fusion scores interspersed with covers of hard rock classics. The band is known for its on-stage shenanigans, as well as for its high-decibel audio hi-jinks, making it one of the loudest bands in jazz. United as an equilateral threesome, members Reid Anderson, Ethan Iverson, and David King cater to a discriminating group of followers who raise up the sub-woofers at their own risk.
The group members were all born in the early 1970s, and Anderson, Iverson, and King first crossed paths as teenagers. Bass player Anderson, the oldest member of the group, was born in 1970 in Minneapolis. By the time he reached adolescence, his classical music studies on the double bass were overshadowed by his interest in rock music. Switching his efforts to electric bass in junior high school, his musical taste evolved dramatically to include progressive rock and fusion, then maturing in the theater of jazz, with bassist Charlie Haden as a major influence. After high school Anderson enrolled at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire. Already sold on a jazz career, his early interest in playing the upright bass was rekindled, and he entered the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia in 1990, earning a music degree in 1993. There he tapped into his classical music background as the vehicle to propel him toward the East Coast jazz market.
In 1994, finding the Philadelphia jazz scene too limiting, Anderson relocated to New York City in order to develop his musical talents, devoting attention to the configuration of his electrified instrument, an acoustic upright with pick-up and transducer. In 1998 he released Dirty Show Tunes, the first of three solo albums on the independent Spanish label Fresh Sound, followed in 1999 by Abolish Bad Architecture. In 2000 he released Vastness of Space, with a newly formed quintet comprised of Ben Monder, Marlon Browden, Andrew D'Angelo, and Bill McHenry. But it was Anderson's renewed connection with pianist Iverson during these years that spurred the beginnings of The Bad Plus.
The Beginning of The Bad Plus
Iverson was born in Wisconsin in 1973 and raised in Eau Claire, where his musical education was entirely in the classical tradition. In high school he became acquainted with Anderson, who was a student at Eau Claire in the late 1980s. The two performed together in diners in 1989. After leaving Eau Claire, Iverson moved to New York City, where he took up studies with Fred Hersch and Sofia Rosoff. His 1993 solo debut, Schoolwork, featured Dewey Redman, and was released on the German label Mons. Iverson was working as musical director for the Mark Morris Dance Group when he encountered Anderson in New York. Iverson's professional colleagues at that time included such modernists as Mikhail Baryshnikov and Yo Yo Ma, a far cry from performers like Blondie and Nirvana, whose work Iverson would cover with The Bad Plus.
Early in his association with Anderson and King, Iverson was identified as odd man out, with a background devoid of rock influences. In addition to his work with the Morris Dance Group, he fronted his own trio, performing show tunes by Rodgers & Hammerstein and Jerome Kern. A recording called Construction Zone, featuring the Ethan Iverson Trio, appeared in 1998. Other Iverson recordings from this era included a live recording in 1999 called Minor Passions, on which he performed with Anderson and Billy Hart. Live at Small's followed in 2000.
Rounding Out the Trio
Among The Bad Plus collaborators, drummer David King is the only member with a background steeped exclusively in rock music. Born in 1972, King, like Anderson, was raised in Minneapolis. The two were schoolmates in junior high school and became friends in 1984 due to a mutual interest in rock music, which manifested itself through their participation in regional showcase programs for high school rock musicians. During the 1990s King was associated with Happy Apple and with 12 Rods.
Sparked by these early amateur encounters, Anderson, Iverson, and King completed their first group collaboration in 1999. Their first performance as The Bad Plus occurred in May of 2000. Adam Wood in Music Week thought the group's sound was "young, vibrant, urban-flavored music, without any trimmings." The original compositions performed by The Bad Plus are attributable to its individual members. David Adler in Down Beat called them "commanding originals making clear the strength of the band's writing." Bad Plus's on-stage demeanor was equally unique, although not altogether original, taking its cue from the antics of artists of another era, such as Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. Picking up where Blakey left off, The Bad Plus began presenting an on-stage exhibit replete with physical contortions and irregular sound effects, even a cappella vocals.
In 2001 The Bad Plus released a self-titled debut recording on Fresh Sounds. The Bad Plus was recorded in less than a day. Although comprised largely of original compositions, the recording also included covers from ABBA and Nirvana. Alan Goldsher, writing in Bass Player, declared that Anderson "can definitely throw it down sonically and musicallyand] his extensive musical palette helps make the Bad Plus more than just a jazz power trio." Likewise, Paul de Barros in Down Beat praised Iverson's "thundering smash cords."
A Rocking Debut
That summer the trio appeared at the Village Vanguard in New York City in conjunction with the annual JVC Jazz Festival. Present in the audience was Yves Beauvais, the newly appointed head of the artist and repertoire section at Columbia Records. Beauvais, no stranger to the trio, was admittedly annoyed by an earlier first encounter with King's unbridled drumming. Cajoled into reconsideration, he recognized legitimacy in the noise and the rhythm patterns he heard during this second go-around, and signed the trio to a contract. A Columbia debut recording, These Are the Vistas, was released in February of 2003. The ten-track album featured seven original compositions and three rock covers, including music from Aphex Twins, Blondie, and Nirvana. Devoid of overdubs and produced without edits, the tracks were nonetheless marvels of stereo separation, showcasing the signature style of producer Tchad Blake. The trio solicited the dubious approval of critic Tony Gieske, who referred to their interpretations as "Cartoon versions of Coltrane," in a Hollywood Reporter review. More supportive was Andy Langer's commentary in Esquire. Langer defined their musical sound as "[jazz that] doesn't require a user's manual." He noted further that these are jazzmen who "don't take themselves too seriously [and who] might be suggesting that [Kurt] Cobain is as valid a musical influence as Coltrane is refreshing."
In conjunction with their major label debut, the trio toured widely in 2003, appearing in more than 100 live performances by the end of the year. In addition to North American venues in the United States and Canada, they performed in Europe, Asia, and South America. They were seen at the London Jazz Festival, at Newport, and at the Kennedy Center.
A six-day recording session in October of 2003 at Peter Gabriel's Real World Studio in England culminated in the release of Give in 2004. This album secured the reputation of The Bad Plus, prompting Dan Ouellette in Billboard to describe it as "gripping high caliber improvisation." Ouellette declared Iverson to be "a piano tour de force." With original compositions from each member of the trio, selections on Give, included King's "1979 Semi-Finalist," "Frog and Toad," and "Layin' A Strip for The Higher-Self State Line." Iverson provided "Cheney Piñata" and "Do Your Sumsie Like A Doglay For Home," and contributions by Anderson included "And Here We Test Our Powers of Observation," "Dirty Blonde," and "Neptune (The Planet)." Covers on the album included the Pixies cover "Velouria" and Ornette Coleman's "Street Woman." The final track on the album is the Black Sabbath cover "Iron Man." Iverson's innovative introduction to this track was performed with his left hand on a detuned upright and his right hand on the usual Steinway, an interlude accomplished without overdub.
King is now married and lives in Minneapolis. There, with his band Happy Apple, he is a central figure in the Twin Cities rock culture. Iverson and Anderson live within blocks of each other in Brooklyn, New York.
The Bad Plus, Fresh Sounds, 2001.
These Are the Vistas, Columbia, 2003.
Give, Sony, 2004.
Bass Player, July 2003.
Billboard, March 20, 2004, p. 34.
Down Beat, May 2002, p. 63; April 2003, p. 26; May 2003, p. 62.
Esquire, March 2003, p. 129.
Hollywood Reporter, May 27, 2003, p. 77.
Jazz Times, April 2004.
Los Angeles Times, March 17, 2004, p. E3.
Music Week, March 1, 2003, p. 19; March 6, 2004, p. 11.
New York Daily News, February 29, 2004, p. 14.
"The Bad Plus," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (March 17, 2004).