Bad Plus...Plus

Ethan Iverson, keyboardist for the Bad Plus, had a lot more to say than could be squeezed into the profile that appears in the May 24 edition of Westword. But the web has plenty of room -- so here's the full Q&A.

The topics discussed include the reasons behind the title of the combo's new CD, Prog; the question of whether Tears for Fears and Herb Alpert numbers can be considered progressive; Iverson's disinterest in exploring the rock music he missed as a devoted young jazzbo; the prospects of the Bad Plus ever covering a Lionel Richie number; the group's positive and negative experiences while on Columbia Records; and Iverson's contributions to "Do the Math," the trio's blog, which feature his takes on everything from the music of Sesame Street to transcriptions of Miles Davis classics.

Consider the conversation a real Plus:

Westword (Michael Roberts): Let’s talk about the new disc’s title. Are you using Prog as a musical term, as a shorthand way of talking about the band’s progression, or a little of both?

Ethan Iverson: I think that we’re trying to make progressive music. Not prog rock, and not prog jazz; there isn’t really such a thing. But it is progressive. That’s really what it refers to. Of course, prog rock is in our background, and there are elements of that on the record. Like “Tom Sawyer.”

WW: Of the covers on the disc, I think that’s the one everyone could agree is prog rock.

EI: And that song “Physical Cities.” There’s some sort of brainy brawn that might be associated with prog rock. So we’re not prog rock, but we’re interested in trying to forge a new style.

WW: How would you describe the new style? Or is more fun not to describe the new style than to try to pin it down?

EI: The sound of the Bad Plus is the sound of the three of us together: our life experiences and our loves in music. We just sort of let it all hang out. I think that we believe in trying to find where you’re most original and most truthful, and to try to put it out there. Some groups with this instrumentation would regard playing a Rush song as transgressive. But for us, it just feels natural. So there’s definitely a big rock music influence, but there’s also a lot of jazz improvisation, too. There’s a lot of abstraction. One time someone said we were avant garde populists. And that’s not bad.

WW: So that’s not a term you’d run away from…

EI: No, that’s fine. We love it, actually.

WW: You’ve already kind of answered this question – but I was going to ask if there were prog elements in “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and “This Guy’s In Love With You” that somehow went past me. Do they now, the way you guys have rendered them on this disc?

EI: You’ll have to talk to some hipper people than me about whether Tears for Fears were a prog band or not. I think they did do somethings that were fairly progressive. That was their biggest hit, and it probably wasn’t prog. But I’d say that in anything we play, we’re searching for the stamp of Bad Plus. That’s the thread, whether it’s original music or Burt Bacharach.

WW: I’ve read that you had never heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” before your bandmates suggested that you cover it a few years back. Did you know all of the cover songs on this new disc? Or are they still bringing you things that most people would think of as your era that somehow got past you?

EI: I’d never heard “Tom Sawyer” until they played it for me.

WW: What was your reaction to it?

EI: It’s feel-good music. Like, Rush gets a rap as being Ayn Rand sort of strange, self-involved music. But actually, it’s sort of good-time music in this weird way.

WW: That makes sense. If they were really all that Ayn Rand, I don’t think they’d be able to fill arenas across the country any time they tour.

EI: That’s true.

WW: So it sounds as if you’re still exploring some of the rock songs that came out in your youth. Have you explored some of that music? Or do you rely on your bandmates to say, “Hey, check this out”?

EI: I think the human race has got rock and roll pretty covered. So I don’t really feel that I need to start analyzing and weighing in more than I already do in the Bad Plus.

WW: As far as the decision to go with these particular covers goes, I read an interview you did with Stanley Crouch, and in it, you said, “The Bad Plus would never cover Lionel Richie.” Is it possible that there’s one Lionel Richie song somewhere deep in the catalog that would be interesting enough for you guys to cover? Or would it just not be a very good use of your time to pour through all of that music on the odd chance that there’s something good in there?

EI: Supposing someone offered us a million dollars to play a Lionel Richie song. Of course you would do it. But the first thing we’d do would be “I Just Called to Say I Love You.” That’s a Lionel Richie song, right?

WW: Actually, that’s Stevie Wonder.

EI: So what’s the most famous Lionel Richie song?

WW: How about “Hello”?

EI: Okay, “Hello.” We’d just do the most famous song. We wouldn’t search for any deep tracks of Lionel Richie.

WW: A lot of people continue to think of your rock covers when they think of the Bad Plus, even though you’ve always included a lot of original compositions. Is that frustrating to you, especially after so many years?

EI: The honest truth is, in the post-modern age, it’s very hard to get going in your career, and we’re very privileged to be out on the road, touring the way we do. And if that’s the press wants to focus on, at least the press is talking about us. I think our fan base understands what we do.

WW: So it doesn’t feel like a compromise to put cover songs on your discs? It just feels like something you can do to help the marketing along?

EI: Jazz musicians have always played tunes by other people. I play a lot of jazz clubs in New York, and I don’t play original Ethan Iverson songs. I play Irving Berlin songs or Thelonious Monk songs or whatever. And we play the covers because we love to play them. That’s really what it is.

WW: In looking at your previous albums, it felt as if there were a diminishing number of covers. On Give, you had “Iron Man,” a Pixies song and an Ornette Coleman song, and on Suspicious Activity, you had the Chariots of Fire theme. So I was surprised to me that there were four on this one. But perhaps you don’t even think in those terms…

EI: It’s less that way than you think, because we actually recorded five cover songs for Suspicious Activity, and we just put the best music on the album. And the best music, we thought, was that mix. That’s just the way it tends to go. There’s usually about ten songs and three covers. So Suspicious Activity was a bit of an anomaly, but we basically used the best stuff.

WW: When Suspicious Activity came out on Columbia, was the relative dearth of covers an issue?

EI: Actually, they wanted an album without covers, because they felt like the press angle had been pushed so far with the covers. They wanted us to make a record where they could say, “This is the original music of the Bad Plus.”

WW: So that could be the new angle? “Now there are no covers”?

EI: Exactly. But the thing is, we loved our version of "Chariots of Fire" too much. It’s just part of what we do.

WW: The two main reason I’ve seen you mention about why you left Columbia were the spyware issue and the label not really knowing what to do with the group at that point. Is it possible to break down by percentage how much each had to do with your decision?

EI: We asked to be off the label, but they would have dropped us anyway. The only instrumental artist they have right now is Chris Botti. So that’s just the way they’re going. I will say the spyware was a huge blow to us. We love that record, and to have this thing on it was really terrible.

WW: Did it bother you from the perspective of it being bad technology? Or was it symbolic of the label being more interested in trying to shake every last dollar out of fans, instead of trying to get it in front of as many people as possible?

EI: It bothered me that people would be harmed by a piece of our art. That was the thing. We’d never do anything to our fans that would be negative.

WW: They’re supporting you by buying your CD, and you’re paying them back by screwing up their computer…

EI: Exactly.

WW: How long did it take to sink in that the Columbia you were on was no longer the Columbia that Miles Davis had been on?

EI: When we joined, it was already not really like that. We actually have good feelings about our time at Columbia. They really helped immeasurably giving us a career. But probably in the ‘50s and ‘60s, they had people involved with jazz and classical that just wanted to document a lot of great stuff. Complete Stravinsky, and as many records as Glenn Gould wants to make, and as many records as Miles Davis wants to make. There were some records that weren’t quite as immortal, but they were still great records. And that attitude was long gone by the time we had anything to do with it. They’d cut Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett and Duke Ellington one day in the early ‘70s.

WW: Was there anyone there who really seemed to understand jazz and get you guys?

EI: Yeah, the guy who signed us, Yves Beauvais, was a wonderful guy. He signed up with them, signed us, and then he moved on. He had just kind of gotten tired of the record business, and wasn’t too involved. He left. We’ve kept up a relationship with Yves, actually. He’ll always be in the Bad Plus family.

WW: At some point, though, there was an appeal of working with a label like Heads Up, because you knew those people were in the business because they love the music.

EI: Right. And Heads Up has been doing a great job so far… But what we did with Heads Up is, we took out a small business loan and made a record, and then we licensed it to them. It’s been a very clear relationship, and they’ve been really great. But I think we were at the point where we wouldn’t have given any label a sit-down meeting talking about the concepts of the record. We’re just over that.

WW: So one of the advantages of working with Heads Up is that you have complete creative control, rather than having to ask, “What are your ideas of how to present our music?”

EI: Exactly.

WW: Has that been satisfying for you in ways that go beyond any kind of financial concerns?

EI: Yes, it’s just been a groovy scene with them.

WW: This time, you didn’t work with Tchad Blake. What was the thinking behind that?

EI: Well, we’d done three records with Tchad, and we wanted to give someone else a crack at it.

WW: Had did having new ears working on the record change the sound, or your approach to the sound?

EI: Tony is a seriously great cat who’s done all these fantastic records. Definitely, this record sounds very different from the Tchad records. But I’ll say that for all the Tchad records, and now the one that we’ve done with Tony, we’ve basically set up and played like we play live. In the foreseeable future, we’re not going to rethink the idea of, we write songs, we play them on tour a lot, and then we record them. It’s a very old-fashioned model, but that’s what we like to do.

WW: And when you record them, do you prefer to be in the same room together as opposed to Dave spending a day in a room by himself getting drum sounds?

EI: I have to say, there’s a fair amount of isolation. We don’t do a lot of editing, but we definitely use a fair amount of isolation. So Dave is in a separate room, and we take plenty of time to get the sound with all the instruments that we want. We don’t take a whole day to get drum sounds, but we might take a couple of hours.

WW: But you don’t rely on technicians to paste your music together…

EI: No, we sit down and play. That’s what the Bad Plus is all about.

WW: Your blog, “Do the Math,” demonstrates a really wide range of interests. Has it been fun for you to share your views about literature and a lot of other things as well as music?

EI: Yeah. I guess in the Internet age, it’s interesting to sort of put it out there. It’s fun for us, anyway. I’m the primary blogger, and we love the blog.

WW: Have you found that your fans share more in common with you than interest in your music than you might have thought going in?

EI: You do establish certain connections. For example, I had the very powerful experience of seeing this Sesame Street clip on YouTube, and I interviewed the composer, which was sort of a great moment for me. And there were some musicians I spoke to who’d also remembered that clip, and it was an emotional thing. This guy, Robert Dennis, is the composer. The clip is quite long, about five minutes or so. It’s a piece of chamber music, but it’s quite jazzy, and I really loved it as a kid. And that was such a great moment. Musicians and fans dug reading it and seeing the clip and also having some truly intense nostalgia that actually leads to tears.

WW: One of the items I came across was one about the chord progression of “Nerfititi,” which shows how thoughtful you are about the mechanics of jazz. Is there ever a danger of taking a too-studied approach to the music?

EI: My feeling about it, actually, is that jazz is a fairly intellectual music, and all the great players think about it. It’s just that a lot of them haven’t spoken about it that much. That was a transcription about what Herbie Hancock told me about the voicings. Now, Herbie Hancock’s not going to take the time to write it out and do that sort of academic thing, but he certainly knows it. He knows it better than I’ll ever know it… But there’s a tradition in jazz of musicians, after the gig, talking in detail about this stuff over a drink or something. It’s just that a lot of them don’t feel like writing about it. Jazz is still a relatively young art form. Give it another hundred years and there’ll be very extensive technical analysis of jazz just like there is classical.

WW: Would you like to edge that forward a bit? To share your knowledge, and the knowledge of others, so the next generation will be one step ahead?

EI: For sure. I think it’s time for the musicians to talk more about this music, and make it clear where we’re all coming from. I fervently believe that.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts