The Bad Jazz!
Over the past fifteen years, pianist and composer Ethan Iverson has played in a tango band, directed a prestigious New York dance group, and released critically acclaimed jazz albums. But perhaps the most unique aspect of Iverson's lengthy musical career is his part in the Bad Plus, a jazz trio that does the best cover of Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" you'll ever hear.
"There is real rock influence in the Bad Plus," Iverson says over the phone as he describes the band's sound. The band, consisting of Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson, and drummer David King, has revolutionized jazz by creating a style driven by aggressive instrument-playing and combinations of an otherwise traditional jazz setup. The result is a sound as loud as an electric guitar, yet all the more appealing because of said instrument's absence.
The Bad Plus began in Minneapolis in 1989, when its three members played a show that featured a cover of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit." That night the bandmates realized they had a unique style and many musical talents, namely an ability to take a rock song and reinterpret it using conventional jazz instruments so that it's both completely discernible and completely different.
"The first time we played together in Minneapolis it felt like, Okay this is an interesting combination," says Iverson. However, the band didn't stick after that first gig, and while Iverson was teaching tango and directing dance, Anderson and King were continuing their own musical careers. Anderson released a few jazz albums and joined the rock band the Sun, while King joined the jazz band Happy Apple. In August 2001, the three reunited and quickly released a self-titled debut LP that featured the Nirvana cover as well as a cover of ABBA's "Knowing Me Knowing You" and six original compositions. The album received nods from the New York Times and Chicago Reader, and eventually, after playing at New York's Village Vanguard, the Bad Plus was signed to Columbia Records in 2002.
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"We were just trying to make it. We were mostly obscure for all those years, so it just came as a big surprise that we got a major-label deal and all that stuff," Iverson says of getting signed. "We're still surprised; four years later, we're still surprised.
"Some people think that when we began recording for Columbia, we had thought about these ideas and we tried to make them a success or something," Iverson adds. "Actually the first gig had the Nirvana song, and all of the sort of stuff that we do in the Bad Plus was an embryo long before we got signed."
In 2003 Columbia released the band's sophomore album, These Are the Vistas, which included original compositions from each member, a reproduced version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," and a cover of Blondie's "Heart of Glass." After months of touring, the band recorded and released Give, another medley of original material and covers, in the spring of 2004. And in 2005, the Bad Plus released its most recent LP, Suspicious Activity?, which features a wide range of jazz-rock tunes such as the politically charged "The Empire Strikes Backwards" and the emotionally charged "Knows the Difference."
"I think a lot of the time [we are] interested in complex emotions," Iverson says. Even the song they chose to cover for the album, the cheesy "Chariots of Fire" theme song, means something more to the band than meets the eye.
"We do wear our heart on a sleeve very clearly, but then some people think, like, 'Chariots of Fire' is just a joke," Iverson says. "That actually isn't a joke; we love that tune, and it is sort of satire in a way, but we also really mean it, and that's sort of a complex feeling."
Conveying complex feelings involves a complex process of piecing each composition together. Because all three members of the Bad Plus play piano, each member contributes original compositions that are then examined by the other members in order to give it that crazy, rock-toned jazz sound that is the trademark of the band.
"Everybody's song goes through Bad Plus-ification in rehearsal; we put it all together and we just sort of figure out how we're going to do it, and everybody gets to put in what they want in the song," Iverson says. "But at the same time, the original song is by the composer."
This Bad Plus-ification extends to covers as well, which are sometimes more difficult to complete than the group's original songs, because the bandmates strive to find a way to make the covers just as unique as any of their own tracks. Their cover of "Karma Police," which appears on a Radiohead tribute album, involves a good amount of jazz improvisation mixed with a powerful piano line, while on the Pixies' "Velouria" cover, the band gives the bridge a surprisingly upbeat, groovy feel.
"There is no composer overseeing it, so it's a little more of a free-for-all at times. We all have ideas or we all have no ideas or we're all like, 'What are we going to do here?'" Iverson says. "With 'Chariots of Fire,' it was sort of like we thought we would do it but we didn't know how to do it. Then I woke up one day and I was like, 'I know, let's do it funky.'"
As a result of the band's fusion of sounds, the Bad Plus is often invited to play as many rock shows as jazz clubs.
"The core of the repertoire stays the same whoever we're playing for, and we believe in that," Iverson says.
What's more telling of the band's ability to succeed in different kinds of performance halls is its ability to defy the conventional limitations of its genre.
"We don't believe in limitations. We've checked out a lot of different kinds of music, and we're ready to put it all in there," Iverson says. "I don't think any of us could go back to being in a situation where there are lots of restrictions."
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