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The Bad Plus makes good on Made Possible

Throughout the history of jazz, groups have been driven by a single leader. But when the Bad Plus formed thirteen years ago, the trio made it a point to be more of a collective. The approach had worked well for drummer Dave King's group Happy Apple, which he co-founded four years prior to joining the Bad Plus in 2000.

Of course, there's another valid reason for not having the band's identity tied to just one individual. "You have to change the band name if you change the personnel," notes Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson. "We would like to be influential about the idea of a band. If there's one thing that's really helped us — and I think could help other musicians, too, or the way that music should go — it's committed ensembles that have an ensemble sound.

"For us, it's really worked out," he goes on, "and just to have that commitment to a sound — you know, the sound of the music and the sound of these musicians playing music together — that's very important to us. I think the thing is, all of our fans like us because we have a sound. It's not anonymous, or it's not the lead voice in something that surrounds us, which may or may not be the guys on the record. It's this sound. So that's what we can bring to the table."

Early on, that sound, that unmistakable Bad Plus sound, was raucous and strong, fueled by the combined efforts of each of the players — King's powerful and visceral approach to the drum kit, Iverson's heavy-handed, angular playing (itself inspired by Thelonious Monk), and Reid Anderson's propulsive bass playing. Listen to any of the group's recordings and you'll be wowed by its muscular approach to jazz. You'll also notice that the threesome has a knack for penning gorgeous ballads, especially songs like "Everywhere You Turn," from 2003's These Are the Vistas, and "Giant," from 2007's Prog.

While the Bad Plus still explores those two extremes, Iverson says that now, nearly fifteen years in, the act has gotten a little more subtle and refined. That was the original impetus for the band: The guys all wanted to create personal music. "That's really important to us," Iverson points out. "It's not enough for us to be good musicians. We want to play stuff that would really represent ourselves, that no one else would be able to do. So in that sense, I think we were successful."

Beyond the music, the members have a long history together that predates the Bad Plus. Anderson and King started playing together as teens in middle school in Minnesota; Iverson met the two when he was still in high school, after spending his formative years in Wisconsin. "We've known each other for so long," Iverson says. "We're still friends. The personal relationship was really there before the music relationship, and that's really helped us."

That connection has helped the guys develop a seemingly telepathic interplay when they're making music together. Iverson says a lot of it comes down to a shared aesthetic. "Some of it happens to be probably where we're from," he explains. "We're from the same part of the world. There are certain things that just make sense to us."

Like the unique sound the band has created together. Bad Plus sounds like a power trio playing jazz, but influenced by an array of other music, such as classical and neoclassical, electronic and pop. Each of the members moved through different gateways into music. For his part, Iverson started listening to jazz when he was ten years old, but "my personal gateway," he says, "was probably hearing some of the music that was on television, and movies that were on TV. I think Reid got into it through rock radio. He used to tape rock radio. I think Dave actually had parents who had a record collection. They had '60s rock and swing-era jazz and country music and all that stuff, and then an older brother who was into whatever, some hard rock. We all got into it different ways."

Any question as to just how wide and deep the band's tastes run can swiftly be answered by looking at the forward-thinking, reconstructed covers its done, from acts such as ABBA ("Knowing Me, Knowing You"), Nirvana ("Smells Like Teen Spirit"), Blondie ("Heart of Glass"), Aphex Twin ("Flim"), Black Sabbath ("Iron Man"), not to mention the trio's rendition of "Fem (Etude No. 8)," by György Ligeti.

The Bad Plus explored some of those songs on 2008's For All I Care, which consisted entirely of covers, before returning to the studio a couple of years later to record Never Stop, which was followed by Made Possible, the band's most recent release, which features another batch of adventurous originals like the odd-metered "Seven Minute Mind" and the push-and-pull-flavored "Wolf Out." While Iverson says most of the group's previous efforts have had very little post-production save for a few touches here and there, Made Possible includes a few tunes, like "Pound for Pound," on which synthesizers and electronic drums were overdubbed later. "Reid has always loved electronica," says Iverson, "so the added touches on the record really come from him."

From the sounds of it, each member added his own touch to the record. King's song "I Want to Feel Good, Pt. 2," for instance, comes from some of the jump-blues tunes he likes to write. "It's not the country blues," Iverson clarifies, "but the urban blues — blues of the highway, not the blues of the swamp." Iverson, meanwhile, says that compositions like "Re-Elect That," which he wrote, are sort of about bringing avant-garde jazz, or free jazz, back to the forefront. "I love that stuff," he declares. "Sometimes I think there's not enough of it around, so I'm like, "Let's vote for it again."

Fittingly, especially considering its title, Made Possible also includes a delicate rendering of "Victoria," by Paul Motian, who passed away in November 2011 and served as a big inspiration for the Bad Plus. "When we were in the studio recording, we heard that Paul [had gone] into hospice, so we knew he wasn't going to make it," Iverson recalls. "We knew that he was sick, and we sort of thought, let's — Reid and I both got to play with him a little bit and Dave's very influenced by Paul, so we thought, 'Let's just try this and see if it works.' It made sense.

"We're hardly the only ones to record a Motian tribute in the week of his passing," Iverson points out. "Many people have recorded his music to say, like, 'Thank you, Paul, for the incredibly inspiring life of drumming and composition and the whole way of being.'"

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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon