The Bad Plus: Known for Transforming Others’ Work, Brawny Jazz Trio Turns Focus Inward

The Bad Plus: “My Friend Metatron”
The Bad Plus: “My Friend Metatron”

Do you ever wonder what a stunt driver does during his quiet time at home? Well, you might not have to anymore, thanks to the arrival of Never Stop, the seventh studio album from The Bad Plus.

On “Bill Hickman at Home,” a dreamlike New Orleans blues piece that crawls at a snail’s pace, the piano peels away from the rest of the music as notes warp out of pitch, and the hard-driving, progressive jazz trio imagines late stunt driver / car-chase choreographer Bill Hickman “drinking a glass of milk and playing solitaire” — at least that’s what pianist Ethan Iverson, who wrote the tune, was picturing. And if that seems like a rather absurd setting for an action specialist like Hickman — who is most well known for his work on the iconic (and emphatically masculine) chase sequences in the films Bullitt and The French Connection — it’s precisely the kind of cheeky, off-angle perspective that The Bad Plus has become known for.

The band’s first long-player to consist entirely of original music, Never Stop should, if not silence, at least give pause to anyone — fans and detractors alike — who has up to this point focused on The Bad Plus’ well-documented affinity for reinterpreting rock and pop standards as jazz instrumentals.

“The populist conception of The Bad Plus as ‘the band that plays Nirvana covers’ might help fill seats, but it’s fundamentally incorrect.”

After six albums, Iverson says that the decision was an “obvious” one to make. And whether or not the album succeeds at steering attention to the band’s compositions — which Iverson calls its “lifeblood” — it at least allows for The Bad Plus to finally stand and be judged on its own merits. Arguably, after making waves for covering “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Iverson and his band mates — drummer David King and bassist Reid Anderson — could have freed themselves of a ton of baggage a lot sooner by putting out an all-originals album as the follow-up to their 2003 major-label debut, These Are the Vistas.

Iverson readily admits that covers have been profitable, but he seems to understand that the attention they’ve attracted cuts both ways. “The populist conception of The Bad Plus as ‘the band that plays Nirvana covers’ might help fill seats,” he says, “but it’s fundamentally incorrect.” He also stresses that original compositions have always made up “about 75–90%” of the group’s repertoire. So if The Bad Plus has been guilty of capitalizing on rampant misconceptions on both sides of the rock and jazz divide — and of pandering to listeners’ most pedestrian instincts by making showy gestures with obvious, overplayed hits — then Never Stop makes the statement that the back catalogue is worth reexamining. And because it comes from a band that has (intentionally or not) relegated its own music to B-side status, Never Stop is a tribute of sorts to the value of the proverbial deep cut.

Stripped of the band’s most tried and true gimmick, Never Stop reveals what The Bad Plus could (and should) have exploited as its “gimmick” all along — namely, the idiosyncratic writing style of all three band members. Iverson explains that he, King, and Anderson all write alone before presenting complete compositions to the whole band. At that point, he says, there is “lots of room for everyone to have their say” in how the arrangements take shape.

For Never Stop, released in September on E1, King and Anderson contributed three tunes apiece while Iverson contributed two, and longtime fans should be able to distinguish each composer’s hallmarks — in Iverson’s words, King’s “meta-metric and prog-rock rhythm concepts,” Anderson’s “wonderful command of melody,” and Iverson’s “jazz surrealism.” Iverson considers the title tune, an Anderson composition, to be “pure pop candy,” while he describes King’s “The Radio Tower is a Beating Heart” as “post-Albert Ayler ecstasy followed by a wild minimalist groove.”

If much of Never Stop revisits familiar territory, that’s partly because, according to Iverson, each band member came to the band with his writing style more or less fully developed. “I’m pretty sure all of us knew what we did by the time the band was formed,” he says. They’ve also focused on refining their approach rather than attempt to reinvent themselves. “Hopefully,” Iverson adds, “you get better over time. But the voice is the voice, really. I don’t know if I’ve ever really written anything better than ‘Guilty’ on Vistas. But ‘Bill Hickman At Home’ has some of that same surreal blues feel, only a little more complicated and worked out.”

Unsurprisingly, some of the album’s most affecting moments occur when the band turns the bombast way down. At their best, Iverson and company certainly have a knack for musical muscle and bravado. But, much like the imaginary Bill Hickman that the band immortalizes on the aforementioned tune, the more subdued aspects of The Bad Plus are appreciated more easily away from the glare of flashy stunts.

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