The Bad Plus' Reid Anderson
Published Jan 29, 2009Over the past decade, the Bad Plus have walked a fine line between jazz, rock and "other." They don't resemble previous jazz/rock hybrids in the slightest, but with covers of Black Sabbath, Rush and Neil Young, their music articulates the bombast and ferocity of rock far more successfully than most jazz-based attempts. Not surprisingly, their approach has generated controversy even while winning over diverse audiences.
They are a seemingly innocuous piano, bass and drums trio, but have redefined the roles of each instrument. At any given moment the piano may be the dominant rhythmic element while the drum kit is melodic; yet they maintain a strong band identity which harnesses their considerable range of musical interests into a unified sound.
Their new release is For All I Care, their first album featuring a vocalist (Wendy Lewis) and covers of "Comfortably Numb," "Barracuda" and most disturbingly/hilariously "How Deep Is Your Love."
Exclaim! spoke to bassist Reid Anderson about this new side to the group.
Some ten years after you formed, you're finally adding vocals to the cover tunes? I'm going to assume that this was no calculated commercial move, so why did you do it?
The idea of collaborating with someone is something we've talked about over the last couple of years. Basically along the lines of shaking things up a bit for ourselves, doing a bit of a different kind of a record. Because of this history we have with contemporary popular music, it seemed like a singer was the clearest choice, but also in a way the most challenging. We really love songs, and there's something about playing with a singer, delivering songs in that way that has its own power. Also, for us, after eight years or so, we have a very established sound, very individual but in a band oriented way of playing this music but we wanted to see what could happen not with the band backing up the singer, but the singer becoming part of the band.
Certainly covers of pop music have been a tradition in jazz going back many decades. Do you think you've broadened the scope of cover versions?
We're not the only or the first people to do this with a more modern relationship to pop music, but maybe some of the choices we've made we've gone down some less obvious roads, for sure.
I think more than the cover versions, it's your approach to the trio format which is most impressive. Do you see more piano/bass/drums aggregations busting down the expectations of each instrument since you've been working together?
I don't even know if it's so much about the aggregation, just a group approach to music whatever the instrumentation is. I feel like it is something we've made a contribution to, the band sound, where in jazz it's been so based on a leader and sidemen. If you listen to the John Coltrane Quartet, it's really a band. That's been one of the things we've put the most emphasis on. The Bad Plus is three people and the sound of the three of us playing is not going to be the same with someone else on any of these three instruments. In that sense I think we've said something.
In that sense, the way you plot things out, you get the piano as the rhythm and the bass in a lead or melodic role - it's not that that's unknown in jazz, but you guys are particularly fearless in doing that. Have you seen other people taking that tip and running with it?
As you said, it's not unusual in jazz but there are more groups saying "we're a band. We're going to develop our own unique band language." That's where the fearlessness comes from, that deep trust and experience of playing together in a committed way.
What did the experience of being on a major label do for you?
It's a fact that our career, such as it is, is in no small part owed to the fact we were signed to Columbia Records. We had a really positive relationship with Columbia in which they left us alone to do what we do, and they put out our records, putting in the muscle and money that only a major label at that time could do. It was a very good and helpful experience for us.
And now you record independently and license the records to Heads Up?
Heads Up distributes them in the States, and Universal in the rest of the world.
With the new arrangement to you expect to sell a reasonable amount of records to make steady if not spectacular income or do you just use the records to promote shows?
We've never made any income to speak of from record sales. But we've sold enough to keep record labels interested in us. I think that Heads Up made some profit off [previous record] Prog to go forward with this next record. Of course we hope to sell as many records as possible, but for us it's not about personal income it's more about getting our music out there. The benefits of having a label there promoting you as a band and promoting the music are certainly preferable to going it alone. That is, If you have a good relationship with the label.
Well, Heads Up is a very diverse label, it's hard to call it a jazz label with the different artists they have on there. Do you think that traditionalism and fusion in jazz are as diametrically opposed as they once were, say in the '80s?
That's a tough question. My instinctive answer is yes because I don't like fusion personally. Fusion has a certain meaning when you reference it to jazz, you're talking about a style. But it depends who you talk to, I think there are still some hardcore people out there, some holdouts who for whatever reason are holding on to those categories. For us in our lives, it just feels more natural if we're not carrying the flag for one style or one tradition. We'd much rather express ourselves honestly based on our own life experiences.
You play bass, and at some point there was tension between going electric and staying acoustic; nowadays bass can be anything that occupies the low end - kick drum, low piano notes, a harmonizer effect, a mixing technique. How do you incorporate unconventional ideas about bass into your playing?
I think my ideas about bass are quite conventional. Maybe the way they're executed might be considered unconventional but I see it as pretty clear; there's a bass function in music and it affects everything around it. That's what I've always loved.
Do you use any effects? Are you ever tempted?
Not in the Bad Plus. There's something about the commitment that we've made to say "Okay, we're going to play piano, acoustic bass and drums and try to take the music to all these other places." It's energizing to work within clear parameters like that. I am a huge fan of electronic music, in fact that's my other life outside the Bad Plus, I'm always working on electronic music but that's in its own world. I wouldn't say no to anything, but I don't see any electronics or electric bass coming into the Bad Plus.
Would you consider the Bad Plus to be in a very American tradition of jazz, or is it internationally inspired?
It's internationally inspired, but I think there's something about us that's deeply American. I can't tell you exactly what that is, but even more specifically Midwestern. We're all from the same part of the world, there's a kind of tribal language we speak with each other that can only come from the Minneapolis area.
What do you think of European critics who say that all the real innovation in jazz happens in Europe? Do you agree with that? No.
Do you see a lot of innovation happening among European bands?
Yeah, there's some. Jazz is certainly not owned by anyone anymore, and that's fantastic. There's always been a European perspective on jazz and it's solidified into more specific things, and there's some great music coming out of it because there are some great musicians. They're thinking about things and basing it on their own lives.
Would you agree that more indie rock-centric fans enjoy improvised music and jazz these days?
It's hard for me to say, I imagine so. I'd say our music has been influenced by indie rock and we love that kind of music, so part of what we do has a certain indie rock sensibility even in just the sound or the basis of the music. So I think that does open the door for fans of that music to say "hey this is something I can relate to." It's not because there is improvisation that they would turn away from it or be interested, it's just that this is music that for whatever reason reaches that receptor for people. Once you open that door there are all kinds of possibilities.