The Bad Plus is the rare jazz band that functions like a rock band.
The bass-drums-piano trio has made its name by taking pop songs and turning them into imaginative improvisatory springboards. Their repertoire consists mostly of modern standards like Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and Black Sabbath's "Iron Man," but also occasional curveballs, like Aphex Twin's melodious "Flim."
The band also tours regularly, records frequently (almost an album per year since forming in 2001), and functions as a consistently cohesive unit. This isn't one of those amorphous "groups" named for a marquee leader. Nor is it one of those chamber-jazz ensembles that is literally the sum of its parts — a mini-super-group existing solely when its members manage to be in the same city (or recording studio) simultaneously.
Sure, all three members of the Bad Plus — Reid Anderson, bass; Ethan Iverson, piano; and David King, drums — do their own thing on the side, but they are foremost members of the Bad Plus. It's sort of like the way Bono can save the world and pen a >New York Times column, yet still be thought of as the lead singer of U2.
Iverson, who recently toured with New Yorker critic Alex Ross for their docents' guide to 20th-century music, says that for all the trio's communal spirit, one thing they don't do is compose together: "We write the song and then bring it in," he says of the group's original material. "Of course, then the song gets fed through the machine of all three of us. Occasionally one will suggest a structural change."
For the group's new release, Never Stop, this meant more composing than usual, because it's the group's first cover-free album ever. Not that it's lacking in a pop foundation; from the thumping bass riff on "Beryl Loves to Dance" to the lulling melody of "People Like You," each song has at its core a distinctly hummable riff, from which the band then wildly, often explosively, extrapolates.
Even the chaotic opening cut, "The Radio Tower Has a Beating Heart," turns out to be, as Anderson puts it, "fairly composed." He says, "There's room for us to improvise but the form is always there."
A formidable pianist, Iverson has no qualms about the minimalist repetition inherent in some of Anderson's pieces, notably the ambient-techno vibe of the title cut.
"Repeated notes are indeed fun," says Iverson. "You need to be hovering just right for them to feel comfortable."
Asked if the trio's penchant for covers has brought them into contact with Christopher O'Riley (the pianist famed for his Radiohead interpretations), Anderson says, "I'm friends with Chris. He's great, and I have looked over his scores carefully and maybe even stolen one or two ideas." (Bad Plus fans hankering for a new, proper cover can pick up Disney Jazz Volume 1: Everybody Wants to Be a Cat, on which the Bad Plus do "Gaston" from Beauty and the Beast.)
For all the Bad Plus' longevity and camaraderie, the new record does raise issues about division of labor. There are five Never Stop songs by Anderson, three from King, and Iverson comes in with the least: two. Asked about the discrepancy, Iverson says, "It's about what makes the best record." He adds, joking, "The two bonus tracks are by me."