How The Bad Plus makes avant-garde accessible
If there were ever an oxymoron that made absolute sense, it would be the phrase “avant-garde populism” when applied to The Bad Plus—the progressive jazz trio that is making its near-annual stop at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center for two sets on Monday, Dec. 6.
Indeed, the group is defined by a few sets of sweet contradiction: classical and contemporary, proficient and accessible, vanguard and conventional. Made up of bassist Reid Anderson, pianist Ethan Iverson, and drummer Dave King, The Bad Plus has put out seven albums over its 10-year existence, and that tag of avant-garde populism—originally coined in the New York Times—continues to hover around aptly.
“We felt like that kind of nailed it in a couple words, what our thing is,” says Anderson. “We believe in the song, but for us the definition of a song is very broad. There’s always some point in what we’re playing, but we also believe in the avant-garde. We believe in taking things as far as they can, we believe in experimentation.”
This experimentation is evident in the band’s output in several ways—as are the happily quirky incongruities that accompany them. One such prong of this forward-thinking nature is in improvisation. While, of course, ad-libbing is a core principle of jazz music, it is in these moments of seeming clairvoyance—furious flurries of keys, the raining pitter patter of high-tempo percussion—where the limits of the trio’s immense talent are stretched.
“From the beginning it was always set up so that we would be ourselves and always challenge each other,” explains Anderson. “We’re always improvising. Part of our whole working process is to be constantly throwing challenges at each other while we’re playing. I would also say that because we’re three composers, we’re definitely very different composers, but also really inspired by each other as well.”
Another spoke of the band’s progressivism shows itself in its repertoire of cover selections. While some popular rock tunes (Nirvana, Radiohead) might not be terribly surprising upon a second glance, and classical ones (Stravinsky) sit well within the breadth of trained musicians, where does interpreting the computerized glitch of Richard D. James fit in?
“I’m a huge Aphex Twin fan, so that was my proposition,” recalls Anderson. “I think Dave suggested the Flaming Lips; we’re really fans of that music. We don’t do things just because someone suggested an idea, everything we do comes from a genuine love for that music. We don’t do anything we’re not fans of, it’s just all stuff we like, and all music we find beautiful.”
But perhaps The Bad Plus’ inherent contradictory nature can best be encapsulated in its approach to recording its most recent album, the two-and-a-half-month-old Never Stop. Finding that sometimes leaping forward requires harkening back, the band incorporated recording techniques of jazz records of the ’50s and ’60s in tracking its latest effort.
“Every time out we try to do something a little different, sonically, with these records, and take some chances,” explains Anderson. “And this time we thought we would put the drums in the room with the piano and go for a really live, raw sound more like those older records. It’s easy to go in the studio and use the accepted method, but it’s interesting to us to say, ‘Well what if we do the thing we’re not supposed to do, and make it work?’ It makes everybody think differently and it’s just part of the improvising and aesthetic in general.”
The Bad Plus performs at 7 & 9 p.m. Monday, Dec. 6, at Kuumbwa Jazz Center, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $22 in advance, $25 at the door. For more information, call 427-2227.