The Bad Plus Greet the New Year With a New Lineup
Posted January 3, 2018 10:05 p.m. EST
NEW YORK — The Bad Plus was nearing the end of its first set at the Village Vanguard on Saturday night when one spirited fan spoke up between songs. “We’ll miss you, Ian!” he shouted to the pianist, Ethan Iverson, whose nearly 18-year tenure with this influential trio reached its end the following night.
The drummer Dave King called back with a grin: “His name’s Ethan.”
Iverson looked unmoved, then put his hands on the keyboard and got the next song going: “1979 Semi-Finalist,” a chugging old war horse by King. Iverson had been stoic all set, and now he seemed downright eager to get the job finished.
He is leaving this collective after a period of what looked like outrageous regularity — full of more than 100 concerts a year, and a steady stream of albums — but was riddled with tension. The Bad Plus will continue without him. The bassist Reid Anderson and King have enlisted pianist Orrin Evans, whose puckish flow differs from Iverson’s approach. Later this month they will release “Never Stop II,” the first album featuring the new lineup; it finds the group slimming its sound somewhat, and tightening its shapes.
For a time in the mid-aughts, the Bad Plus was the most important and inimitable act in improvised music, driven by the breakout success of its rollicking cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and the untempered provocation of its 2003 major-label debut, “These Are the Vistas.” There have hardly been any jazz ensembles with a stronger collective identity, or more longevity. Perhaps only the Modern Jazz Quartet outstrips them. Like that quartet — and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, in other territory — the Bad Plus developed a devoted following, while reflecting a cultural moment.
The music was jolting and idiosyncratic and kind of maddening, in that it didn’t directly resemble any particular influence. Where was this coming from? It didn’t sound like the new-thing jazz of the 1960s, or glam rock, or a film soundtrack, or 19th-century impressionism, though that was all source material. This became especially striking on its covers of pop and rock tunes like “Teen Spirit” and Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.” The band didn’t use jazz rhythms or cocktail harmonies, but it didn’t just scale down the original songs either.
There are no covers on “Never Stop II,” which is not surprising; the Bad Plus has made albums of entirely original music before. (“Never Stop,” from 2010, was its first.) More notable is Evans’ effect on his new comrades’ compositions. The group’s first five records (through “Prog,” in 2007) found Iverson in constant tension with his bandmates, creating dizzy urgency. His playing is crisp and vertical and grandiose; he often seemed to be headed toward some big argument about finality, or totalistic power.
In many of the band’s most exciting moments, that symphonic style — drawn from both Keith Jarrett and Benjamin Britten — scoured hard against the restless surge of King’s drumming, which mixed busted Afro-Cuban rhythms with kinky rock shuffles. Anderson, with a big bass sound and a narrative impulse, synced up closely with King, giving Iverson a thick cushion.
But over the past 10 years, the group’s approach became rather fixed, and the tension relented, even as the Bad Plus often introduced new collaborators. On albums like “Made Possible” (2012) and “Inevitable Western” (2014), lullaby-like melodies sometimes felt too easy to get along with. Perhaps the three musicians knew too well what to expect from one another — or as good will dissipated, so did the willingness to inspirit one another.
On “Never Stop II,” the formula scrambles a bit. Evans is a more fluid pianist than Iverson, and he aligns more easily with postbop’s mainstream language. What does that do to a band that has always tried to define its own idiom?
Many of the tunes on the new album — recorded in September, after just a few rehearsals — open up into bustling piano solos, something that’s not typical of the old Bad Plus. Even on Anderson’s “Hurricane Birds,” when Evans improvises in punched notes and unlinked phrases, a springy groove takes hold. On tunes like Evans’ “Boffadem” and Anderson’s “Safe Passage,” the pianist’s thick and decisive left-hand chords nod toward an established language.
It’s an exhilarating document, and the first album the Bad Plus has recorded without first road-testing the songs. Evans is excited to air out the material on a tour starting this month in St. Louis. “It’s a piano-bass-drums trio, it’s not a piano trio,” he said. “The goal is to try to find your space within that.”
When Iverson informed Anderson and King in November 2016 that he wanted to leave, Evans was their first choice for a replacement. “We’ve known each other a long time and played together a lot, and he’s a friend,” said Anderson, who met Evans when he was a teenager. “He also has the right combination, I think: He’s a brilliant pianist, but he also has the right irrationality quotient in his playing.”
Iverson had been unhappy in the group for a while. A friendship with Anderson that began in the mid-1990s went sour years ago, and their tours became uncomfortable. One sticking point was Iverson’s desire to pursue outside projects, and his diminishing enthusiasm for the Bad Plus.
“I was getting to the point where I was bummed to go on the road, just for personal reasons, internally in the band,” Iverson said.
King put it simply: “Ethan has agendas, and Reid and I actually have an agenda for the Bad Plus. That’s the difference.”
Iverson runs the blog Do the Math, posting interviews and musical analysis, and sometimes courting controversy. On Jan. 1, he unveiled dothegignyc.com, a home for live reviews and calendar listings of New York jazz, compiled by fellow musicians. He contributes to The New Yorker’s website, and is working on a book proposal.
He also plays in the famed drummer Billy Hart’s quartet. In October, he helped organize the Monk@100 festival in Durham, North Carolina. He is writing a piano concerto. And he’ll soon tour with the Mark Morris Dance Group, where he once was musical director, in a Beatles-themed performance titled “Pepperland.”
And what about the career of Evans, whose already-scarce free time is basically gone? At 42, he’s long been known as one of the most vital figures in straight-ahead jazz — and an ambassador for the musical treasures of Philadelphia, his hometown. He stays busy: with his Captain Black Big Band, his small and midsize groups, side-musician work, and in the trio Tarbaby (something like an Afrocentric double for the Bad Plus).
For his part, he sees it all coexisting. He’s in the midst of a six-night run at the Jazz Standard. Tarbaby has a new album due this year. But it won’t be simple.
“I’ll always be in the Orrin Evans group, I’ll always be in the Captain Black Big Band, I’ll always be in Tarbaby,” Evans said. “And now I’ll always be in the Bad Plus.”