Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Bad Plus Interviews 2017: Ethan Iverson

Ethan Iverson, Reid Anderson and Dave King
at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis
on December 28, 2007
Photo (C) 2007 John Whiting

Date of interview: December 3, 2017

Pamela Espeland: This will be your 18th Christmas at the Dakota, which is amazing.

Ethan Iverson: Is that true? Is it actually that many?

PLE: According to Lowell it is. Your first Christmas there was 2000, so this makes 18.
[Note: Lowell Picket is the owner of the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis.]

EI: I feel like we played the AQ and then the Dakota in 2001, but whatever. Close enough.
[Note: The AQ was the Artists’ Quarter in St. Paul, which closed in 2013.]

What has it meant to you to play there every Christmas?

There’s something about The Bad Plus which really is the Midwest. We’re three guys from that area. We’ve played all over the world, but I’ve always felt that when we played in the Midwest and played in America, there’s some element of our music that was understood on a folkloric level better than anywhere else.

The Bad Plus is considered a Minneapolis band. It is always referred to as a Minneapolis band, even though you and Reid have lived in New York for years. That’s something both Philip and Lowell made note of when I spoke with them.
[Note: Philip Bither is the performing arts curator at the Walker Art Center.]

[Dave King and Reid Anderson] grew up in Minneapolis, or outside the Twin Cities, and Menomonie is not so far away. All my relatives are from Duluth. My family is from Duluth. Calling it a Minneapolis band seems fine to me. Probably it’s a bonus, because Minneapolis is cooler than any city in Wisconsin.

Justin Vernon and Bon Iver have been helping to boost Eau Claire’s coolness profile.

I can’t believe how cool Eau Claire is now. When I left high school in 1991, Eau Claire was nothing like it is now. It’s incredible.

What will we hear this year at the Dakota? Are you approaching these shows any differently because this is your final Christmas here as the original trio?

We haven’t learned any new music this year, so it’ll be a lot of the hits we’ve played over the years. It’s not like a special roundup program or something.

What is the secret meaning of the name The Bad Plus?

Dave made up that name, and as far as I know there wasn’t really a secret meaning. It’s hopefully memorable. I think it is memorable, in that sense. It was really successful. Lorraine Gordon of the Village Vanguard called it a report card, which is about as good as I ever heard.

You’re going back to the Vanguard for New Year’s. How many nights will you play there?

It’s actually an extended run. We’re playing Christmas night through New Year’s Eve. Seven nights. It’s just the way it worked out, that my last night with the band will be New Year’s Eve, and on January first I’ll wake up a free man.

What was your plan when you and Reid and Dave started out as a trio? Where did you think this would lead?

I never expected to have a career in this music that was notable. My whole life, I assumed I’d just be on the fringe, because a lot of my great jazz heroes were and are on the fringe. So to have had this amount of exposure really shocked me. In the first couple of years, I was in a perpetual state of shock about it. It’s notable to have a career that lasts this long in one band.

We really had a breakthrough in 2003. We were written about in all the magazines, and there was still a Tower Records, and our album [“These Are the Vistas,” 2003] was in the lightbox at Tower Records, and everybody in the jazz world heard about us as this overnight sensation. That was a profound shock, and I’m still surprised that any of that happened.

“These Are the Vistas” was your first release on Columbia. You signed to Columbia after a rep saw The Bad Plus at the Vanguard. How did that happen?

Yves Beauvais [from Columbia Records] was signing acts. He’d moved there from Atlantic. He’d done really nice things at Atlantic as an A&R person, signing people but also producing the great box sets of both Ornette Coleman and Led Zeppelin. Both are really important to The Bad Plus.

He was sort of interested in what I was up to, and eventually I told him, “Yves, you’ve got to check out The Bad Plus. This is what’s happening.” He came to see us one time and didn’t believe it yet. But then he came back to the Vanguard show we did for the JVC festival in 2002, and he signed us the next day.

When “These Are the Vistas” came out, suddenly The Bad Plus was everywhere. You were praised by the mainstream press, which irritated a lot of jazz people, and you were vilified. It was an interesting mix of “we love them, we hate them, they’re saving jazz, they’re ruining jazz.” What was it like to be in the middle of that?

All my heroes took flak, so I also regarded haters as more or less an honor. Having haters means you’re doing something. People got upset about it, and that was a clear indication that we must be having an impact with our music, that it could create that kind of discourse.

So it didn’t give you second thoughts about the direction the band was going?

Not for me.

How many gigs do you think you’ve played together in 18 years? Did anyone keep an exact record?

No. It’s between 100 and 150 for at least 16 of those years. That’s a lotta gigs.

Now that you’re about to leave the band, what are you leaving undone? Is there anything you would have done differently?

[Pause.] That’s the problem when there are three leaders. At some point, people aren’t on the same page. Reid and Dave are still on the same page, but I’m not on the same page. We’re opposites musically, too. Personally and musically.

What would you have done musically?

[Pause.] The two things that come to mind are I’m very historically focused, and I guess if the group had all wanted to be interested in digging out the history, that would’ve been good for me.

The other thing is that I think there’s a real element of pop music in what we do, and I could’ve used more of just playing pretty music at some point. We had real incredible power playing clear, direct music. At some point, it was almost too avant-garde for the circumstances, as far as I’m concerned.

I read somewhere that you hadn’t even heard Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” before the band decided to record it.

Frankly, to this day, I have very little technical or spiritual interest in rock and pop. I just barely know anything, still. That’s part of the problem personally, too.

Ethan Iverson, December 2017
(C) John Whiting 2017
Looking at jazz 18 years ago and jazz now, what’s different, and what role do you think The Bad Plus played in that?

When you’re inside it, when you’re on the road playing 150 gigs a year, it’s hard to get an assessment. But there are people who will stand up and say, “Jazz is great, it’s better than it’s ever been, long live jazz!” That’s actually not the way I feel about it.

I feel like it’s a hard time for the music, it’s a hard time for a lot of stuff. A blend of esoteric and popular is hard to find. I think we have stuff that’s very populist and stuff that’s very esoteric, but that sweet spot in the middle is difficult, not just in jazz, but in the American arts in general.

That’s why we [America] ruled the world in the 20th century culturally. We had this mix of high and low. We owned it all because it was so great. And then at the 21st century – I guess it’s not the American century anymore. It’s like we’ve lost our magnificent balance of stuff that’s really complicated and stuff that’s really direct.

Do you think The Bad Plus made a difference in music in general? Do you think you paved new ground?

People have said that. I can’t really know that myself. I’m just doing it. I’ve heard music that’s influenced by us, for sure. Definitely, I’ve heard stuff and thought they checked out The Bad Plus. At the same time, I guess I’ll be hyper-egotistical and say I wish we had been more of an influence than we seemed to be at times.

The truth of the matter is we do have fans. We have people at the Dakota that come to see us time and time again, and it’s not just because we’re favorite sons. It means there’s something about our show that’s entertaining and you have a good time even though it’s avant-garde jazz. And that seems to me the crucial message. That’s what Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington were, too – that blend.

We’d have to take this on a case-by-case basis of who’s doing what out there now, but I do feel that’s essentially the message of The Bad Plus – “We like this, and you’re going to like it, too.” I’m dumbfounded at times, when I’m checking out some modern jazz and that kind of engagement seems to be off the table.

Do you mean the engagement between the artist and the audience?


Who do you think is The Bad Plus’s closest imitator?

Mostly European groups. There’s a group called GoGo Penguin that has kind of a big following. I don’t think there’s too many famous groups. I’ve heard things from Vijay Iyer in the last decade that I thought sounded like he checked out some Bad Plus.

Have you played with him?

He’s a piano player, so no.

He’s done some double bills with Craig Taborn. Do you think you might explore that?

You never know. He’s not on my list of collaborators.

Who is?

Right now, I’m trying to find some great young musicians to form a new group with. I don’t feel like I can do another piano/bass/drums trio after this. The first thing I’m doing that’s more like my own project is a duo with Mark Turner, the great saxophonist. We’re putting out a record on ECM and we’ll be touring that next year. But I think that’ll just be a season, not a long-term thing. We’ll see how it goes. Mark has his own band. He’s busy, so I’m lucky that he’s doing this with me.

I’m writing a piano concerto that will premiere in April with the American Composers Orchestra at Zankel Hall. The Mark Morris Dance Group will be touring a piece called “Pepperland” which I wrote the music for. It’s like an hour-long dance suite with a relationship to the album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” It’s sort of hard to explain until you see it, but it’s not a cover of the Beatles. It’s more like a meditation on the swinging ’60s. It’s got an interesting band, with theremin, trombone, soprano sax, two keyboards, drums and vocal. We did that in England last year in Liverpool. It was commissioned by Liverpool and it was a huge hit. That’s going to be on the road quite a lot the next couple of years.

Is it coming to Minnesota?

There’s no date for Minnesota yet. I’m hoping it will; we’re playing it all over. I played the Northrop [at the University of Minnesota] with Mark Morris back in the day, but that’s so big. What would be the right hall for us there?

Northrop is not as big as it was. It was completely redone, and they cut more than 2,000 seats out of it. It’s completely different. … You’re starting a new blog, Do the Gig, In addition to your blog Do the M@th.

Yeah. One thing about The Bad Plus was we were in the old system, where we were written about in the New York Times even before we broke through. We had coverage. And then we got signed to a major label. All those things can’t happen anymore. How can a young group even do it anymore?

There are so many great musicians in New York. They keep on moving here, and I’m interested in the written word and jazz, but I’ve never really done anything with younger musicians because I’ve been mostly historically focused on my own writing. But I thought – let me just try this out.

I’ll give it a six-month trial period. I’ve got some interest. It’ll have a splash page with just club listings and what’s happening in the city, because there’s no single online source for that in New York City. Incredibly, there’s no one stop where you can find out who’s playing jazz around town tonight. And there are about 20–30 worthy gigs every night. And then I’m trying to encourage people to write simple reviews, not crazy praising or blaming; just sort of like what’s happening. Because a lot of stuff is happening and I don’t even know what’s out there. I feel a little old. There are some references here I don’t know.

I do think the discourse around New York jazz needs a boost of something, so I’m going to try to do it with this. We’ll see if it happens. Most new websites fail, so we’ll see. I’ve decided to give it a shot.

You’re also writing for the New Yorker. Will you continue doing that?

Yes. I have three pieces so far in the New Yorker at the Culture Desk. My literary agent said, “You want to write a book. Why don’t you place some articles in a mainstream publication first?” So I got the New Yorker out of the gate, which was incredible. You can’t really do any better than that. The goal is to do four to six pieces for the New Yorker, and then double down on writing a book about the music.

What will your book be about?

It’ll be about jazz. A history. I feel like there’s stuff about the way the music was created that still isn’t understood that well. I’m not saying I understand it perfectly either, but in my mind Duke Ellington and John Coltrane and Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk and all these other greats, they were the great music of the 20th century.

The book would put that in a perspective where we can say, in a more academic sense, this is why it was so great. This is why this [music] is in the canon.

Who are you writing it for?

It wouldn’t be too academic, because I actually hate academia and I hate that writing and that sort of stuff. If I bring anything to my jazz writing, it’s the fact that I’m a player.

In the New Yorker articles, I’m trying to temper the wonkiness of Do the M@th. I spent 15 years being very technical at trying to do my homework, and now, with these New Yorker pieces and for the book, I’m trying to find a spot where I can talk about the music in an accurate way that someone who wants to learn about it will understand.

If you’re in it to win it as an artist, you have to take care of an incredible amount of miniscule details. But the art should communicate in a way that a lot more people can get it. And that’s what I’m working on with my writing, too.

Do you have a favorite The Bad Plus album?

The first three on Columbia still have a kind of weight. It was so fresh, and the engineering by Tchad Blake was so special, and there wasn’t anything else like it.

I think Reid and Dave feel like each new record has been better than the past. That’s not my feeling, honestly. I don’t know that the later records have so much charisma around them as compared to the first ones. That’s another reason to move on. For me, the statement was made.

Whatever happened to the Ornette Coleman “Science Fiction” The Bad Plus did for Duke Performances, then briefly toured? You also did Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” for Duke Performances and later made a recording. Is there a recording of “Science Fiction”?

I don’t think there was ever really a plan to record it, because the [Ornette Coleman] album is there. The album is one of the masterpiece jazz records. I think the point of the project was to play great improvised music live with some horn players we wanted to shine a light on – Tim Berne, Sam Newsome and Ron Miles – and introduce to our audience. So I think that was a live thing, really. There won’t be any kind of official release.

[Note: A video of a live performance of “Science Fiction” at the 2017 Jazz à la Villette festival in Paris is available here. A complete video of the Stravinsky at Duke Performances has disappeared from the places where it used to be, probably because the studio recording came out on Sony in 2014. Watch four short excerpts here.]

When I contacted you about this interview, I said I would not be writing a breakup article. But we need to talk a little about that. Leaving the group was your decision?

It absolutely was my decision.

Was there a specific turning point for you?

I felt personally too uncomfortable, and also felt like the statement had been made.

Any final words?

Just that I fully expect to be back in Minneapolis, with playing of one sort or another, sooner rather than later.

I enjoyed your solo performance at the Dunsmore Room last year. Did you?

It was hard because I don’t do that very much. If I could get in a groove of doing that kind of thing, it would feel really natural and really enjoyable. I sort of have this [desire] in me that is like an educator, with the writing, talking to the audience, that sort of stuff. And if there’s a way I can put all that together without it being too didactic, that’s something I’m thinking about for the future as well.

Aren’t you already teaching somewhere?

I did teach a few piano lessons a semester at New England Conservatory. I had seven students. I’d see them seven times a semester and teach them seven sins – my joke about it. I see it coming already that I’m going to be pretty active as a jazz educator. That’s going to happen. I’m going to Paris next year to teach.


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