Note: This story ran in LookAtOKC and WeekendLook in advance of Jazz in June on June 25-26.
New York City’s The Bad Plus delivers a complete brand of eclectic and innovative jazz by infusing the element of improvisational surprise, but don’t let the band’s tagline fool you. Just because they live amongst the world’s musical elite doesn’t mean their collars are starched white.
“We play with the energy of a working band, and I think in improvised music that’s something that’s rare these days,” drummer Dave King recently said over the phone, his children lunching in the background.
The trio is far from unaccustomed to headlining at jazz festivals (they play six between now and September) and like all great workingman bands, The Bad Plus earn a living by rolling up their sleeves and hitting the road, which happens to pass through Andrews Park for Norman’s Jazz in June on June 26.
Although Norman isn’t exactly the jazz capital of the world, King insists on the importance of exploring new places and listening to the way music is played the world over. “There are scenes everywhere with great improvising musicians, so we totally believe in the idea of hearing everybody’s stuff.”
It’s a philosophy that meshes well with the Norman Arts Council-sponsored Jazz in June and its mission to educate and inform the public on all forms of jazz and blues.
“I’m a huge fan of theirs,” festival program chair Jim Johnson said. “We’d been looking to get these guys in since they broke big, but they were too hot a commodity for us to book at the time.”
Many popular jazz bands forgo a well-rounded group sound for the sake of individual virtuosity, but not The Bad Plus. “I think that this band has forged a really unique sound in the landscape of jazz.”
Unique, indeed. King, alongside pianist Ethan Iverson and bassist Reid Anderson form one of the planet’s best, most original jazz ensembles, one dependent on more than just structured musical harmony.
“When we came together in 2000, there was an immediate connection,” King said. It’s their natural chemistry and progressive attitudes that create music that appeals to purists and the unlistened alike.
This is a precarious balance to maintain, but a listen to their most recent record, 2009’s “For All I Care”, reveals a careful selection of traditional compositions (Stravinsky’s “Variation d’Apollon”, Ligeti’s “Fém (Etude No. 8)”, popular rock tunes (Nirvana’s “Lithium”, Heart’s “Barracuda”) and a pleasant sample of more obscure cuts (the Flaming Lips’ “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate” and Wilco’s “Radio Cure”) that prove the band’s willingness to experiment and progress.
“We try to leave the music, in many ways — its intent, its original power — alone,” King said of the band’s selections for cover treatment. “What we try to do is take it, hijack it and kind-of re-shape it in a way that supports improvising.”
Listeners of “For All I Care” are also treated to another jazz phenomenon, singing.
“Every group, they collaborate with some sort of normal instrumentation and all of a sudden we thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting to do a record with vocals from an instrumental band?’” King said.
Singer Wendy Lewis was enlisted from King and Anderson’s native Minnesota to enhance tracks like Pink Floyd’s sad classic “Comfortably Numb” with her indie-rock touch. “It was the whole idea, to mix it up,” King said.
Jazz in June attendees are guaranteed an impressive performance by a band that’s willing to draw from classical, modern and even unconventional influences.
“We’re of our time,” King said. “A lot of music is available to us, from rock to hip hop, classical electronic as well as jazz. We try to use all of these natural ways…we try to use all these texts to improvise with, not just the historical text of jazz.”