Few groups in the world have carried the torch for modern jazz as effectively as the Bad Plus. Ever since the piano trio first formed in 2000 with ubiquitous drummer Dave King, Reid Anderson on bass, and pianist Ethan Iverson, the childhood friends have forged new ground and created new audiences for the group’s rapidly evolving body of original compositions and unlikely covers. Taking audiences for a ride, the band blend their complicated approach to rhythm and melody with everything from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring to songs from Aphex Twin, Nirvana, Rush, and even Abba.
The group have roots in the Midwest but have consistently called New York home. There, they’ve managed to plant a flag in the jazz world, earning worldwide fame for consistent innovation.
This was why it came as a bit of surprise earlier this year when the band announced a lineup change, with Iverson leaving the Bad Plus at the end of year. While East Coast pianist Orrin Evans has been warming up to take over the piano bench with the Bad Plus in 2018, the band has already recorded a new record to be released in January with the new piano player.
The Bad Plus’ annual return to Minneapolis and the Dakota Jazz Club during the holidays, with four days of shows kicking off tonight, makes for something truly special. The shows aren’t just a yearly tradition for the group’s local fans, but a victory lap with Iverson.
Talking with King about the band’s history, the special nature of the Dakota gigs every year, and his relationship with Iverson, he sounds invigorated. He’s looking forward to what’s to come for his flagship band as they break new ground with Evan, and the drummer also spoke with pride about what he, Anderson, and their longtime partner have been able to build.
These Dakota gigs are always something special. Tell us about how they fall into the Bad Plus’ history.
We started it in 2000. That year we started with just one show and then it grew from there. We’ve been doing at least three or four for the last ten years now. It’s really coincided with the beginnings of the band. The first year we did was the year we had tracked our first record as the Bad Plus, which would have been the record some people call Motel. That was December 2000. So that really marks the beginning of the band.
We played a weekend in May of 2000, but we hadn’t come up with a name just yet. We were just old friends who had grown up together. We had felt really good about playing together, so we booked some studio time and got the thing going. We booked the Dakota with [founder] Lowell [Pickett] right after that, and it worked, so we just kept on going. That record came out all over the world in 2001, and it ended up being one of the top five jazz records of the year in the New York Times. It really spurred the ball rolling: the rise of the band in 2002, and us getting signed.
It’s a cool thing because I think in the Twin Cities prominent bands have these shows around the time of the holidays, and the Dakota shows function that way for you guys.
There’s this aura in the press here that the Bad Plus is a Minneapolis-based band, but it’s always been New-York-based. I live here, but because those guys come back here during the holidays, because we all grew up together here and the roots of the band began at the Dakota, it really has become a homecoming. We’ve always considered the Twin Cities a huge community for the Bad Plus.
You don’t play too often in the Twin Cities, besides the Dakota gigs, do you?
No, not really. Through the years there’s been a few other shows at the old Guthrie, the new Guthrie, and Ted Mann and the Loring Theater, but that’s about it.
I remember the year you played Rock the Garden!
That’s right, with Wilco in 2003. That was the year our Columbia record was taking off the Walker gave us that gig. We also played at the Walker for the Ornette Coleman 75th celebration, some tunes for Ornette. You got me going down memory lane here!
What were some highlights from the Dakota shows for you?
Honestly, every year we really look forward to it. There’s a really familiar energy in the room. We see a lot of the same people every year. It’s become a real tradition for some, and that is incredibly heartwarming. That isn’t anything you feel you have just anywhere in the world. We do a few other year-end residencies: one in Saint Louis, which we’ve done now for 11 years, and New York every year as well.
But Minneapolis, of course, has a lot more of our family there and we talk with people. Every year we are truly grateful that people have made the choice to make the holiday season something they share with us. That’s really felt. It’s palpable. Not only are we going to continue it with Orrin in the new band, but we just look forward to it every year. We are really thankful that people keep coming back. Every year we just keep throwing down with whatever we have.
You mentioned Orrin. I think that took some fans off-guard. Tell me a little bit about the process of Ethan’s departure and adding a new member.
It evolved into a space where — without minimizing Ethan’s contributions, because that would be ridiculous — but really Reid and I formed the band. We have sort of artistically directed the Bad Plus and challenged those tropes of the leader-centric jazz world. There is no leader of the Bad Plus. There is no piano leading the band. In fact technically, Reid and I have written most of the original music and have always chosen the covers for the Bad Plus, so if you want to look at it like that, Ethan has been the least of the leaders of the Bad Plus.
Over the years Ethan’s interests outside of the Bad Plus, including his unbelievable and detailed blog writing and his going on the road and playing shows some of the older masters of the music, basically started to feel like his involvement was less his artistic statement with the Bad Plus as it was in the early days. Whereas for Reid and I it’s been our main statement artistically, so I think the fatigue from of that started to wear on everybody, where perhaps Ethan wasn’t as equally possessive of what we were doing and more just going along with it.
There was never anything like any kind of blow-out. Remember, we grew up together. I’ve known Ethan since he was 16 years old. Reid and I have been playing music together in our garage since 1985. Ethan is easily one of the most brilliant improvising musicians on the planet. He’s an incredibly interesting guy. I have known him for a long time, and there’s nothing that can take away from what we’ve accomplished.
There’s a love there, a brotherhood — but I think continuing without Ethan, there’s a huge breath of fresh air for Reid and I. I think for Ethan as well. I am so happy for what Ethan will go on to do. He will always be a force. But at the end of the day, the life of what the Bad Plus is it’s a leaderless collective that has everybody writing and everybody throwing down equally and challenges those leader-centric constructs that we feel are disastrous for jazz groups. This idea that somebody can just go out with a bunch of anonymous sidemen and thinks they are going to develop fans of this music. It’s not going to.
When you have a band and a band identity, you can be a fan of that. You can have a t-shirt of that. Even when we did the stuff with Joshua Redman or with Bill Frisell — it still sounded like the Bad Plus. Josh even said that to us! You end up playing and thinking like a band member. You don’t think like you have to stand out front and mack out. You start to think like an ensemble — it changes the way you play.
And, of course, the Bad Plus’ sound comes from compositions. All of that sound is there. When we decided to continue after Ethan told us he was planning on moving on over a year ago, we decided to do a final year together.
So how did you land on Orrin and getting him involved?
We’ve been so invested in this band, Reid and I decided there was only one guy who we thought had the mindset, the chops and beautiful personality and was positive. Reid and Orrin go way back and I have known him for 20 years or so. He was always a real early supporter of the Bad Plus. When Reid and I thought the band would be going this way we decided there would be no tryouts, no nothing. Reid was going to just call him and ask him if he wanted to be a member of the Bad Plus or not. It was literally that flat. He just answered yes, that he would love to, and it’s never been a question since.
Awesome. So you have already recorded with Orrin?
We recorded in September in a day and a half. It’s probably the freshest thing we have done in a long time. The sound of the band is there. We all brought in tunes. It went off like nothing, like no time had passed. It will come out in January, ten new originals. We are honoring our year with Ethan with our last show on New Year’s Eve in New York, then two weeks later we are in St. Louis with Orrin for four nights and a U.S. tour in January. The record is called Never Stop II.
It’s really not like you just didn’t want to think of a new band name, right?
[laughs] No, it’s really like we’ve done so much work with this band and the concept. Reid and I just have poured everything into this group. We weren’t taking our resources and opportunities and creating dream projects with old masters, we’re invested in the Bad Plus. That’s not a loaded comment, that’s really what happened. We don’t take the Bad Plus’ status and use it for other projects. The projects I’ve had outside the Bad Plus I’ve had the whole time during the Bad Plus. Reid doesn’t do anything other than some electronic music and some compositional things but he’s a full-on Bad Plus member when he’s improvising. You are going to hear this new music and it isn’t Ethan, but it is still the Bad Plus.
Hear Dave King on The Current every Sunday night as host of our jazz show, King’s Speech.