Music News

The Bad Plus

The title of the latest disc by the Bad Plus is Prog, and it includes a version of Rush's "Tom Sawyer." But that doesn't mean pianist Ethan Iverson can be called a longtime fan of the artsy genre. Because he grew up listening to jazz, not rock, he was unfamiliar with the aforementioned song before being introduced to it by his bandmates, bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King. And while he warmed to the tune, he's not terribly interested in trying to catch up on all the stuff he missed during his formative years. "I think the human race has got rock and roll pretty covered," he says.

At first blush, Iverson's relative indifference toward rock seems paradoxical. After all, the Bad Plus first hit the radar with 2003's These Are the Vistas thanks to a captivating rendition of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" — which Iverson didn't know, either. But he remains a devoted jazzbo who appreciates rock material as much for its marketing potential as for its intrinsic value. "The honest truth is, in the postmodern age, it's very hard to get going in your career," he notes. "And we're very privileged to be out on the road, touring the way we do."

Such jaunts were endangered when the Bad Plus's relationship with its label, Columbia, started to fray. Imprint execs actually argued to make 2005's Suspicious Activity? an originals-only package so PR staffers would have a new angle to pursue, but Iverson and company couldn't resist tossing on a reimagining of Vangelis's theme from Chariots of Fire. When Columbia placed spyware on the CD, the rift widened. According to Iverson, "It bothered me that people would be harmed by a piece of our art" — and he concedes that the imprint's seeming confusion about how to promote the band was troublesome, too. So the Bad Plus boys jumped before they could be pushed, and took out a small business loan to finance Prog. Afterward, Heads Up, a jazz specialty label, purchased the masters, which feature four ditties by other tunesmiths. Brainy interpretations of David Bowie's "Life on Mars," Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" and the Bacharach/David staple "This Guy's in Love With You" sit comfortably alongside cuts such as the Iverson-penned "Mint," a showcase for his lushly audacious keyboarding.

To Iverson, the threesome's approach remains the same no matter who composed a given track. "We're trying to make progressive music," he stresses, "not prog rock, and not prog jazz; there isn't really such a thing. But it is progressive." He adds that "some groups with this instrumentation would regard playing a Rush song as transgressive. But for us, it just feels natural."

Or it did once he heard the damn thing.

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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