The Bad Plus’ rock covers, classical tunes are a perfect equation for chamber music festival
By Luke Quinton
Wednesday June 27, 2012
There’s jazz, and then there’s the Bad Plus.
When the trio last played the Austin Chamber Music Festival, they nearly blew the top off Bates Recital Hall in a take-no-prisoners set that culminated with drummer Dave King pulling out two E.T. toys and playing them for the static and beeps.
It is jazz, but it’s jazz that’s very aware that rock ‘n’ roll exists, and acts accordingly.
Their covers of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” are what made them famous, but, “no jazz group — no one — would call it a cover,” says bassist Reid Anderson.
He’s right. Covers are the songs you hear on “American Idol” or on some restaurant patio. If anything, Anderson starts to say, the Bad Plus treat covers “like pir-”
“Where you going to say ‘pirates’?” I ask.
“Yeah,” he says.
He didn’t want to be misunderstood, and their covers are well within the law. They’re pirating, but only metaphorically. “You are sort of coming up alongside, boarding the ship and looting and pillaging,” he says. “We look at it through another lens, beat it up a little bit and see what comes out the other side.”
That’s exactly what it sounds like to listen to the Bad Plus. A beautiful melody pulls your ear in close, and that’s when they raise the pirate flag. The piece disintegrates into a smash of cymbals, a fistful of piano keys and Anderson’s scurrying bass lines. Sometimes it’s more like a rock show than a jazz show.
Which is why the trio will make itself quite at home Friday at Antone’s.
When they played the chamber music festival two years ago, the Bad Plus were on the cusp of a new album release. This time around, the situation’s much the same: a new album of originals called “Made Possible” drops in late August.
If the “covers” draw fans in, the originals have staying power. With addictive tunes next to their raucous melees, the titles are the key to the door, Anderson says.
“Bill Hickman at Home” name checks the famed stunt driver of “The French Connection,” and “Super America” may have been titled in honor of a string of gas stations by the same name.
“We feel it’s important to give our listener a playing field. Even if it’s abstract, it’s a starting point,” Anderson says.
And the Bad Plus continue dipping their toes in modern classical music — from Ligeti to Stravinsky.
Last year they were commissioned to take on Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” in its entirety. The result definitely has their sound — and they have one of the most distinctive sounds in the biz — but it’s also Stravinsky, note by note.
When they play Ligeti, a Hungarian composer who wrote in dissonant clusters, it’s the real deal — Ethan Iverson’s notes on piano mirror the original — but the work has to be filled out. So, Anderson says, “the bass part and the drum parts are completely made up.” And that’s how the band’s sound takes hold.
Where does this creativity come from? In large part, from Minnesota, Anderson says. Minneapolis is “one of the few cities that has thriving jazz venues.”
“And there’s also a relative remoteness as well. I think there’s something about that that sort of forces you to imagine what something could be,” he says.
“We had to just make something up. Creative solutions become your solutions.”
It’s a formula that sends them touring across Europe and North America for much of the year. And as for the novelty of playing a chamber music festival, “Jazz in general really is a kind of chamber music itself,” Anderson says, “It doesn’t seem odd to us at all.”
The Bad Plus
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Antone’s, 213 W. Fifth St.
Cost: $25 in advance, $30 at the door