Ethan Iverson. Photography by John Whiting.

The Bad Plus: On Jazz, Humility, and Finding Your Voice

Some of the best writing I’ve ever done has been while listening to The Bad Plus on repeat. The jazz trio’s sound has a primordial quality – it pulses with the raw creative power of truly selfless collaboration. No one is trying to be the star. No one wants to be heard above the rest. They’re all just exploring the potential of what a song can be. It’s terrific music to create to.

Ethan Iverson (piano), Reid Anderson (bass), and Dave King (drums) make up The Bad Plus. Unlike most jazz groups, they have no leader, and they’ve been playing together without any lineup changes for over a decade. This tight-knit, collaborative approach has allowed them to explore the definition of what a jazz group can be, playing complex original songs riffing on all styles – from blues to bebop to cha-cha – as well as jazzy covers of rock and pop songs from Nirvana to Black Sabbath to Aphex Twin.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Iverson after a piano master class he recently gave in Brooklyn, New York. We talked about how jazz relates to crime fiction, making a cover that means something, and finding that special groove that’s completely unique to you.

Do you draw inspiration from non-musical sources?

It’s very important to have non-musical influences I think. You try to put your life experiences in your art no matter what. This is true of anything. Your social life, your romantic life, what you love in general, you know, the stuff you hate, all that stuff should somehow be in the music, or what you do as an artist for sure.

What are some examples of artwork that’s influenced you?

I like knowing what genre something is. I read a lot of crime fiction. For example, there’s the heist novel, where people rob a bank. The music I create oftentimes is kind of like a genre. I like to listen to different bebop performances and compare them, almost like I compare different heist novels.I am definitely aware that when I start a piece of music, in a very few moments I am creating the genre for the piece that we’re going to do for the next 3-10 minutes of my life. I’m in this genre and I’m very alert to that, and I think that probably not all jazz fans think that way. “Okay, this is the heist novel. This next one is the romance.”

Your social life, your romantic life, what you love, the stuff you hate – all that stuff should somehow be in the music.

Where do the ideas for your songs come from?

I have had melodies come into my mind, but it’s not too often that I don’t start at the piano. Sometimes it’s just a certain chord, I think that’s actually the way Stravinsky works sometimes, you know, got a chord and you go from there and that’s a comfortable way for me to work.

You guys have great titles – from joking (“The Empire Strikes Backward”) to poetic (“The Radio Tower Has a Beating Heart”). Where do they come from?

The titles matter, and they can be quite literal sometimes, like when there’s a story that goes with the image of the title. I occasionally come up with a title first and then try to work out the song.

I got this great title recently, it’s called, “Everything’s In.” My wife gave it to me. She watched some documentary about this older man who’s a fashion photographer at the New York Times ["Bill Cunningham New York"], and he’s this wonderful cat who just loves going around NY taking photos of everybody in the fashion world.

But one thing he hates is when people say things are “out.” Like, “Oh, that’s out of style. He says, “Nothing’s out, everything’s in.”  I just thought that was so beautiful. So, I stole it for a title. It took about a month of different ideas coming out, and then there was the song “Everything’s In.”

The Bad Plus has been together for 12 years now. What have you guys gained from working together for so long?

Jazz is often a leader-centric world, where it’s someone’s quartet or someone’s trio. We drew a line in the sand in the beginning and said this is a collective, which is really important. When you think about the Police versus Sting’s solo career, most people like the Police better. Even though Sting was singing most of the songs we really loved in the Police repertoire, there was clearly some chemistry that all three of them together had. We’ve had the luxury of committing to a band sound, and it was very collaborative at the beginning and has remained so to this day. I can’t really imagine doing it another way at this point.

You guys are known for doing great rock and pop covers. How  do you make them new?

You should have a point of view.  It’s almost political in a way. If you have a song that you love that’s heard on the radio a lot, the reason to play it at your jazz show is to show a different side of that piece of music.One of our more successful covers, I think, was Wendy Lewis singing Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.” [Listen below.] It’s radically different than the original. Wendy said something about when she sang it she wanted to sing it as a warning, not as the quintessential “celebration of drugs” song.  So she sang it like a warning, which I thought was a great, almost political thing.

And the guitar solo is famous as being one of the great shredding solos, so I play an anti-solo.  It has the fewest notes possible and also like these stark, dissonant chords.  So again, it’s in a way political.

What’s your recording process?

We like to get away.  We never record a full album in New York City, you know.  We like to be out in the woods, somewhere. In some ways it’s more like a rock and roll project than a lot of jazz groups.  Each album is a serious event where you take the time and you just sort of pay for it somehow and carve out the space to do it.

I’ve heard you quoted as saying, ‘I’ll forgive almost any kind of ineptitude as long as I’ve never heard it before.’ Can you talk about originality?

Every time I hear something I don’t know it’s grist for the mill, for my own work. When I hear it I think, ‘Wow. That’s some new stuff. Maybe there’s something there I can steal.’ If I know what it is, then it’s just “Oh, there’s those guys doing that stuff. I know that stuff.”

I love this quote at the end of the video you guys made for the release of “Never Stop”:  “A lot of times artists, they get sort of full of themselves and think they know the answers, and it becomes really boring.”  Where did that notion come from?

Take Steven Spielberg, for example. I think we all can agree that we love his early films, but with the later ones it might be good, but it’s probably gonna be bloated and boring. He’s full of great ideas, but at some point somebody isn’t exercising quality control.  I guess he doesn’t have the same obstacles probably and everyone says yes to him, and he has decided every idea he has is great.  As a result, it’s just less interesting.

I prefer to think that it’s possible to always sort of double-check yourself and be like, “Is this really the right thing?” and be searching.  The classic jazz example is John Coltrane: consummate musician, but really never stopped searching. I don’t think he ever believed the hype about himself.  He could’ve been like, “Man, I got it, I’m great.”  But that’s not the feeling you get. Coltrane was incomparably great, but he was also just humbly trying to figure it out.

What’s your take on finding your voice?

If you do something and you think, “That really seems like me and I don’t think anyone else does that,” then you’ve got to jump on that with both feet and do it over and over again until it becomes something that really works.  That can take a long time or it can happen in a day.  There’s that moment when you’re like, “Yeah, that’s what I do, right there.”

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Todd Anderson

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Todd Anderson is an editorial assistant for 99U. He is also an NYC-based performance poet and the producer of the Poetry Observed video series.
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