Ethan Iverson, best known as pianist for the jazz power trio the Bad Plus, is on his knees setting up the drum kit for percussion legend Billy Hart, and Bad Plus drummer Dave King is almost giddy with anticipation. It’s Saturday night in the Night Club, one of the most intimate venues at the Monterey Jazz Festival, and Iverson is doing double duty as roadie and bandmate with Hart, a bona fide jazz legend who’s in the midst of a high-profile run of engagements celebrating his 75th birthday.
The Bad Plus played a riveting set earlier in the evening with Joshua Redman in the main arena, which is why King has time to stand around now delivering verbal riffs like his often hilarious stream-of-consciousness between-tune banter. “I should stand at the side of the stage, look at my watch and shake my head when Billy looks over,” King says, goofing on the absurdity of throwing shade at a fellow drummer he reveres.
If King gets ahold of the mic on Monday when he returns to Kuumbwa with the Bad Plus, you might get a taste of his psychedelic sense of humor, but what’s guaranteed is a whitewater raft ride of a performance. The trio roared into prominence at the turn of the century with poker-faced covers of “Iron Man,” “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and “How Deep Is Your Love,” transforming rock and pop anthems into epic improvisational journeys powered by King’s surging trap set orchestration.
The musicians met and bonded as Midwestern teenagers sharing a “Coen Brothers-like outlook on life,” says Iverson, who hails from Wisconsin (King and Reid grew up in Minneapolis). With all three musicians constantly shaping the music’s flow, they eschew the tired jazz custom of playing a theme followed by a round of solos. An entire set might pass without a bass or drum solo, or a long crescendo might suddenly transition into a rubato passage, leaving audiences unsure whether to applaud.
“Not everyone needs to make a statement on every piece,” Iverson says. “When I’m improvising, Dave and Reid are improvising full-on too, and we tend to know exactly what we’re doing emotionally with the music.”
The group still traverses an occasional tune of recent vintage, but since 2010’s Never Stop, the trio has released a series of albums focusing exclusively on original compositions. The songs feel at first like they emanate from a seamless persona, but a closer look reveals three strikingly disparate identities. Anderson, who keeps an electronic music project on the side, possesses the gift of a natural melodicist with a pop sensibility, while King writes intricate, odd-metered surrealistic prog rock. Iverson is the the band’s straight man, musically and sartorially, and he tends to write conventional jazz tunes or pieces based on the chord changes of a standard.
The band’s latest album, It’s Hard, is a deep dive back into far-flung covers, with concise and beautifully rendered interpretations of pieces by Prince (“The Beautiful Ones”), Kraftwerk (“The Robots”), Johnny Cash (“I Walk the Line”) and Yeah Yeah Yeahs (“Maps”). But nothing captures the creative ambition of the Bad Plus better than their exploration of “The Rite of Spring,” Stravinsky’s epochal modernist masterpiece (documented on the 2014 Sony Masterworks album).
While all three players pursue various side projects, Iverson is the most visible. In addition to his work with Hart, he and Ben Street have played a key role in bringing a late-career burst of attention to octogenarian drum maestro Tootie Heath with a series of critically hailed trio sessions. He also maintains a wonderfully idiosyncratic blog (dothemath.typepad.com) where he holds forth on crime fiction, reacts to current events, and posts extended interviews with jazz elders—particularly drummers, an obsession he shares with King.
“When you talk music with Ethan, all he does is talk about the drums challenging the dynamic scope of the band,” King says. “Pianists are divas by nature, and Ethan is a little bit of a diva in his own right. But he’s never going to complain about the drums getting up in his shit.”
INFO: Jan. 16, 7 p.m., Kuumbwa Jazz, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. $30/adv, $35/door. 427-2227.