Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Bad Plus Interviews 2017: Dave King

Ethan Iverson, Reid Anderson and Dave King
at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis
December 28, 2014
Photo (C) 2014 John Whiting

Date of interview: December 5, 2017

Pamela Espeland: This will be your 18th Christmas at the Dakota.

Dave King: That’s right.

PLE: What has it meant to you to play the Dakota every Christmas for all these years?

DK: I think it’s really special for all of us. Growing up in the area, we saw very seminal shows at the Dakota as teenagers, in the old location at Bandana Square, and had all these memories. We started with maybe one night, then Lowell gave us two nights and it started to build. It felt like such a great accomplishment to be on the Dakota’s radar for a regular thing. They treated us as a real deal band with a real buzz on it, even back then. Lowell always gave us that respect.
[Note: Lowell Pickett is the owner of the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis.]

Lowell has really great ears. He knows the music. He knows jazz. He knows what he’s booking, and for him to hear that in us before we had built an audience. … He helped build the band. In those shows at the Dakota, we started to see the potential of people really liking this music.

You’ve had the only annual residency at the Dakota in this entire time.

That’s correct. Lowell has renewed it with real commitment every year, and also brought us back at other times off-season. We played once in the spring when a new record came out. He’s helped us do shows at the Ted Mann and other places. He’s brought us down to Arizona for shows at the Musical Instrument Museum. So we always felt like Lowell was a part of our inner circle ascension team. He believed in what we were doing and was proud of what we were doing, and that meant a lot to us, because Lowell isn’t just a club owner.

We built our Minnesota audience at the Dakota. There’s an assumption that The Bad Plus is a Minneapolis band. That’s totally untrue. The band has always been based in New York. I live in Minneapolis, but it’s a New York band. That’s where our first shows were.

Many people consider you a Minneapolis band.

Happy Apple is a Minneapolis-based band, to make the comparison. I think it’s important to remember that The Bad Plus didn’t toil in Minneapolis for years and then come out. We played in New York more, and we would come and play Minneapolis once a year. I just want to give respect to the bands of Minneapolis that are part of this scene, that have grown in this scene, that have dedicated their work to this scene.

It’s erroneous to consider The Bad Plus a band that is Minneapolis-centric, even though we were born and raised here. Reid [Anderson] and Ethan [Iverson] haven’t lived here since high school. I moved away and then moved back and formed Happy Apple in the ’90s. We’re proud of being from the Twin Cities. But 18 years in, when somebody from London is still going “the Minneapolis-based The Bad Plus,” it’s like … what???

What will we hear this year at the Dakota? Are you doing anything different because it’s your final Christmas here as the original group?

I’m not sure if we’re doing anything different. Sometimes in the residencies we might repeat a set, but of course they’re always different. We’ve been playing a few older things lately that we hadn’t played in a long time. Nearing the end of Ethan’s tenure in the band, we’ve been picking some tunes he would like to play, some we haven’t played in a while. These will be some of the last times we play them, because moving forward with Orrin Evans, we’re doing Reid’s and my music.

We’re going to try and make it thrilling for everyone, us as well, because this is a positive new chapter for everybody. It’s not a sad thing. It’s a really positive thing.

I’m told that you came up with the name The Bad Plus. What’s that about?

It’s about nothing. Naming a band is a painful experience for the most part. In the early 2000s, there were a lot of “The” band names. I thought to myself – what if it was sort of graphic, like Pop Art, where it sounds like it means something, or could mean something, but it’s not really direct? It’s almost an oxymoron, but it’s very simple and memorable and graphic. You can see it and you remember it. The first logo was “The Bad” and then a plus sign, for a minute. It was based on something simple and memorable that might mean something and might not, but it really doesn’t. There’s no literal meaning to it.

Was there a runner-up for the band name?

There wasn’t. One of the amazing things about this band – and it’s the same bringing Orrin in – is there’s very little haranguing over decisions. It’s like, “That sounds good. Done.”

That’s the way the records have always been made. We make records so fast in this band, and it continued with Orrin. We had almost the whole record tracked in one day, and the next day we did a couple tunes and finished by the afternoon. That’s been the way we’ve done it with Ethan forever.

When we did it with Josh [“The Bad Plus Joshua Redman,” 2015], he couldn’t believe how fast it went. At first, Josh was like, “I’d like to fix that” – not that Josh does a ton of editing – and then he started to see what this thing is. It’s believing in the first-thought, best-thought concept. There isn’t a lot of sitting around and arguing. Everyone recognized each other’s strengths and we rolled with that.

I attribute that to keeping us together for 18 years, one of the longer-standing jazz groups in history without a lineup change. There wasn’t a ton of “I don’t know about that.” More like “That sounds good to me. Done. Why make it more complicated? That sounds great.” That’s been the ethos of the band. Everybody is personally responsible for dealing with certain things, and everybody has their strengths and weaknesses, and we try to divvy it up that way.

Dave King, December 2017
(C) John Whiting
What was your plan when you started out as a trio? Where did you think this would lead?

We were very surprised by the attention. We had a few years before then of noticing that any time we played it felt strong and at ease, as if we didn’t have to try too hard or talk about it too much. All those things that can bring down a band or people working together.

We felt excitement from the audiences even in the early days of not many people being there. We played a three-night stand at the Old Office in New York in 2001. It was a Friday, Saturday, Sunday. For Friday’s first set, there were about eight people in the audience. By Sunday, it was totally sold out. That’s, like, 80 people, but it started with eight. And it wasn’t because we were playing Aphex Twin. We had all these complex originals. We put in a couple of standards and a couple pop tunes we were deconstructing. We just sort of felt – there’s something here.
[Note: The Old Office was part of the Knitting Factory in Tribeca, which closed in 2009.]

None of us thought when we put this band together that we’d get a record deal. It just sort of went, and we went with it. We didn’t go into Columbia telling them “We’ll do anything to be on Columbia records!” We went in with an attitude like “We do what we do, and we’re glad you like it, so we’re going to continue doing what we do and you will leave us alone.” That sounds precocious, but we were in our early 30s. We weren’t this 21-year-old hungry. We’d already done over ten years in DIY land. So when we rolled in, we felt very strong.
[Note: The Bad Plus’s record deal with Columbia began with “These Are the Vistas” in 2003.]

Where it was going, we had no idea. But we were ready. And the guy who signed us, Yves Beauvais, knew that. He realized, “We have to get out of the way. These guys are going to do what they’re going to do.” We had an engineer, Tchad Blake, who was way outside the jazz spectrum. We had an artwork concept, a series of paintings from this artist in New Orleans [Stephen Collier] I’d seen in the New American Paintings journal. One became the Robonaut cover. We weren’t going to have some dumb jazz cover art from the Columbia Records art department.

I didn’t know you also managed the art.

We have been in control of every single art package, everything we have put out, ever. We art directed every photo shoot. We delivered records the way we wanted them in the order we wanted them in. For the second record, “Give” [2004], Matt Freisen, the bass player for Halloween, Alaska, did a drawing and we used that. All the graphics, all the aura was generated by the three of us.

Columbia did the first three records. They were wonderful to us. They left us alone completely. We haven’t had a regular record deal since Columbia. We’ve had licensing and distribution deals with everyone including Sony, but we’ve owned the records.

With “These Are The Vistas,” things kind of blew up, and The Bad Plus was both praised and trashed. You were a big deal in the jazz press and the mainstream press. What was that moment like?

First of all, we were excited to be getting attention. Second, we knew that anytime there’s some sort of attention given, especially in jazz, there’s going to be a side that will try to bring you down. One thing we knew was that our heroes were critically derided. So in many ways, we were in line with our heroes.

We were glad also that some very straight-ahead jazz critics really liked us. Gary Giddins was a fan. Stanley Crouch was a Bad Plus fan, believe it or not. The surprising element of where criticism and praise were coming from lent itself perfectly to the complex nature of The Bad Plus. It led to the story of what we believed ourselves, that we were much more complex than huge, poppy jazz, or the rock stars of jazz. You could show up [at a concert] and we’d play all this thorny music and one or two rock tunes, and they were sometimes the most avant-garde things we were doing.

Going through all that, we were happy we were getting the chance to play music for people. Sure, if you’re reading an article where somebody is saying you suck, your feelings can’t not be hurt sometimes. You’d be lying to yourself if you were like, “I don’t care.” Of course you care that somebody thinks your work is terrible, But every artist goes through that. Go read old reviews of Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. I’m not putting us in that league, but I’m saying in our generation, that is comparable. Those were all critically derided musicians. Today every reissue gets five stars, but at the time, they were maligned. Ornette Coleman was maligned up until his death.

We weren’t an easy conclusion. We were complicated. And we were ultimately seen as that, and we outlasted a lot of that stuff. We haven’t seen much negativity about The Bad Plus in years.

What are you leaving undone as the original trio? Is there anything you haven’t done that you wanted to do, or anything you would’ve done differently?

No. I don’t have anything. I think we did more than I ever thought we would. From reworking classical music to doing records with guests to our recent stuff with Bill Frisell. … Making 13 records in 18 years. It’s unbelievable. And we might have played more concerts, truly, than any jazz group in history without a lineup change.

How many concerts did you play?

It’s been, like, 150 a year since 2003, and 2002 had at least 30 or 40, and 2001 had about 20. So if you do the math, that’s far more concerts than any working jazz group in history. It’s more than the Keith Jarrett trio ever played.

I’d be interested in somebody pointing out what jazz group played more shows in history without a lineup change. And I’m not saying that to be braggadocious. That’s just being a road band. One reason we have the longevity we have and built the crowds we built is that we got on the road and toured. We didn’t just sit around playing a couple weeks here and a couple weeks there. We toured every month since 2003. It’s rare that we’ve had over a month off since then.

So I think we did what we wanted to do, and I think it’s the perfect time to have Ethan move on to what he needs to do, and he has all the blessings in the world from me and Reid.

Ethan’s classical background is pretty heavy and deep. What about Orrin?

There’s this idea that Ethan is the only classical guy in The Bad Plus. Reid has a classical music degree from Curtis Institute, one of the most prestigious conservatories in the world. Reid is someone who can get a high-level orchestra gig. Even the way he writes – the way he uses triadic harmonies – is rooted in European classical music.

Thank you for reminding me of Reid’s classical background. Reid has been kind of the quiet Beatle.

And he is during interviews. He typically wouldn’t say anything when people said, “Ethan, you’re the classical guy. …” We would all kind of shift in our chairs, like – uh-huh.

What Orrin brings that is very Bad Plus-ian is that Orrin is unique. He’s kind of a natural weirdo, like we are. He’s not an easy conclusion. He’s a band guy. He is also idiosyncratic. It’s hard to pin down where he’s coming from, which is very Bad Plus-like. He has multiple dimensions, and classical music is in there.

He and Ethan are totally different pianists. But for me, the common bond of The Bad Plus is more about what you do once you’re in there. [Hearing Orrin play] was an instantaneous glow of joy coming out of the piano. He immediately brings a new energy. We’re not expecting Orrin to be Ethan or fill Ethan’s shoes. We want Orrin to be Orrin and join The Bad Plus and be a Bad Plus-ian kind of philosopher.

Looking at jazz 18 years ago and jazz now, what difference has The Bad Plus made in the sound of jazz, the attitudes about jazz, and what people expect from jazz? What do you think your impact has been?

In my most humble space, if I look back on the last 18 years, I think The Bad Plus challenged the piano trio. We challenged it by being leaderless, which is very rare in the music. We challenged it by having three composers – not one, not two, but three. We have three independent voices that are equal.

We challenged the dynamics of the piano trio the way they’ve never been pushed before, and we challenged the oeuvre of the piano trio with some rock music that was not the Beatles and the classic stuff that jazz musicians have taken on. The way we did that was different, and it’s safer now for everybody to do it. We took a lot of the heat for that. If you’re coming up today, it’s completely normal to take on whatever music you want without anyone saying anything. Whereas, if you played Blondie 18 years ago, that was different.

And Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.”

Yeah, and the way we did that was different. We didn’t put a bunch of jazz chords on it and go, “It’s a jazzy ‘Iron Man!’” We met it on different terms. So honestly, I think our contribution is, we took every classic format of the piano, bass and drums and we turned it upside-down. Along with people like Jason Moran and Craig Taborn, we shifted it around and put it someplace else.

Who is The Bad Plus’s closest imitator?

I really don’t know. Sometimes we hear people that we can tell have come up under what we’ve doing. Sometimes we hear about a band. Sometimes when we hear somebody that sounds a little bit like what we’re doing, or a lot like what we’re doing, and you never hear them mention us, we know that’s a dead giveaway that they checked us out. I’ve heard a few things by a band called GoGo Penguin from the UK. We’re in there, man.

There’s no way you can avoid a band that’s 18 years old with 13 records and has played every festival on earth 15 times. There’s just no way. But whatever anybody wants to take from it is fine. We know there wasn’t anybody sounding like us before us. We do know that.

What is your favorite The Bad Plus album and why?

It’s difficult. … I’m going to say “Suspicious Activity” [2005]. When I think of the three Tchad Blake records, which I love – “These Are the Vistas” [2003], “Give” [2004], and “Suspicious Activity” – I think “Suspicious Activity” has the most tempered version of what we’re like live.

The first two are very pushed and maxed. People would see us live and say, “You’re a lot softer than we thought.” “Give” is an explosion of statement because it was the follow-up to “These Are the Vistas” being so successful.

I like parts of all these records still, when I listen to them, which isn’t very often. And I like a lot of what we’ve done since. I like elements of everything, of course. You’ve got to like what you’re doing, or else whatever, but I think for me “Suspicious Activity” stands alone as a sonic statement that’s very unique. And the writing – it’s all originals other than the “Chariots of Fire” cover, which I think is a great cover and very intense. That’s the epitome of The Bad Plus taking on some complex, emotional music, facing down the theme from “Chariots of Fire.” I remember we all very gleefully agreed that it was a tune we had to try and do very heavy and serious. It’s a great piece of music.

Ethan loved “Give” the most, I would have to guess, because he talks about it a lot. But I think Reid would agree that “Suspicious Activity” is up there. Or maybe Reid likes “Made Possible” best because of some of the electronics. But for me, it’s “Suspicious Activity.”

Reid said he loved all of them equally.

That’s very Reid.

I will say that the new one with Orrin, with all due respect to everything we’ve done, is my favorite thing we’ve done in a long time. I think it has a very fresh energy and a unique set of music on it, so I’m very happy with it

When I contacted you about this interview, I said I wasn’t writing a breakup article. But I want to talk a bit about Ethan’s leaving. When did you know that a change was coming?

You mean, when did Ethan quit?

Did you know it was coming? Did you feel it needed to come?

It definitely needed to come. I had sensed it for a few years, even though every time we play, everybody’s throwing down. It was never about the work not being good. The records are strong. I believe in every one of the records we’ve made. But it became increasingly frustrating between Reid and Ethan, and how they viewed each other’s motives – not only in improvising together, but what their motives were for the band and in the band.

The band not having a leader has always been a sensitive subject. We’ve gone through many years of leader-centric promoters and people thinking that Ethan is the leader because he plays piano. And you understand that, but it’s a very difficult thing to navigate, especially when you contribute at the level Reid Anderson does. Reid Anderson is not just the bass player of The Bad Plus. Reid Anderson is one of the most creative composers in jazz. He’s known for this, and he’s a very strong personality even though he’s quiet, and he has a very serious, strong vision. Possibly the strongest of the three of us.

I think they started to distrust each other’s motives. I kind of became the middle child, which is how I fit into life most of the time anyway; I’m the middle child in my own family. I just wanted those two to clear the air with each other. They weren’t yelling at each other or being angry like that. It was more like a smoldering kind of distrust. And with Ethan getting more and more into his blog [Do the M@th], and being out in the world doing that, and then playing with us, we would feel like Ethan was not 100% in there emotionally. … When you’re a jazz critic and you’re a musician, that can be a sticky place.

So I felt for a few years that it could happen at any time. Either Reid would want to remove Ethan from the band, or Ethan would leave the band. When Ethan quit finally, it was not a surprise at all. And it wasn’t a huge, dramatic thing.

How did it happen, and when? Reid said January.

It happened last November, right before we were going to play a show at the Rough Trade record store for the release of “It’s Hard” [2016]. He quit when we were driving there in the car. He said, “I think it’s time for me to move on,” and we accepted that and mulled it over for a few months and talked about if we’re going to continue or not. We weren’t quite sure.

Then we went through the holidays, and Reid and I got together and did a lot of soul-searching. We came to the conclusion that why should we end The Bad Plus because Ethan wants to? Ethan’s not the leader of The Bad Plus. So we thought about Orrin and Reid called him up and put it flatly to him, and he said yes immediately.

So that’s how it was. And then we told Ethan last January on tour and he said okay. And we said – what do you want to do? Do you want to finish out the whole year? And he said yep.

So we’ve just been playing all year. It’s been fine. We’ve been out on the road, doing what we do. We’ve been playing and I get along fine with Ethan and always have. And I’m happy for him. I’m happy he’s going to do some other stuff, and I’m happy for Reid and I. And I know Reid is very relieved, and we’ve been working really hard with Orrin this year and it’s very exciting. This music is alive for sure.

When did you start working with Orrin?

In the spring. I’d go to New York, we’d rehearse a bit, then Reid and he were getting together, then we all brought in new music to some rehearsals in the summer here in August, and then we tracked in September. We’ve been doing a lot of work. We also rehearsed a bunch before tracking in September and getting the whole book ready for beginning in St. Louis, and we’ve got a bunch of the older music going, and we have a whole new record.
[Note: The Bad Plus has a decade-long tradition of playing several nights at Jazz St. Louis, formerly Jazz at the Bistro, in January. They’ll debut the new group there.]

Can you talk a bit more about the new record?

I think it’s the strongest thing we’ve done in a long time.

Where did you record it?

In New York at Brooklyn Audio, where we’ve done several records. We used the same engineer, Peter Rende. The Bad Plus is a collective, and [the new record] sounds like three collective-thinking creative people playing together in a language that everyone understands.

We’ve known Orrin for more than 20 years. When we tracked it, it went like that – bam! Easy. Zero stress. There was a bit of stress getting it together because we don’t live in the same city. Orrin lives in Philadelphia. So you’re adding an extra element of reuniting on the road, finishing up this year with Ethan, and preparing all that new music. But then, when we got in the studio, it just felt so right, so very affirming. It was like – yep, this deal’s good.

I can tell from listening to some of Orrin’s earlier music that he knows The Bad Plus.

He’s been into The Bad Plus forever. He was one of our earliest supporters.

Is Orrin writing new music for the band?

Absolutely. He brought two tunes into the new record.

The ethos of group music has been our message since the beginning. Here we’re really living the message. We’re switching the pianists and it sounds like The Bad Plus. Whoever brings in music, it gets treated like the sound of this band. Everybody is treating the music like they wrote it, and everyone’s voice is equally heard.

When Joshua Redman played with us [and contributed two songs to “The Bad Plus Joshua Redman”], we still sounded like The Bad Plus. We didn’t sound like Joshua Redman’s band. Orrin fit in beautifully with that construct.

It should be stated that we never had tryouts to fill Ethan’s place. We thought we would continue if Orrin wanted to do it, because we just knew he was the one. So it was a simple question: if Orrin wanted to join The Bad Plus or not. If Orrin wanted to join The Bad Plus, we would continue The Bad Plus.

Are you thinking about calling the new album “Never Stop II”? Reid said that was on the table.

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