Monday, December 25, 2017

The Bad Plus Interviews 2017: Lowell Pickett

Ethan Iverson, Reid Anderson and Dave King
at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis
December 23, 2017
Photo (C) 2017 John Whiting
Date of interview: December 2, 2017

Owner of the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis and a fixture on the Twin Cities music (and restaurant) scene for decades, Lowell Pickett has presented The Bad Plus at the Dakota numerous times; at the Cedar; in Phoenix at the Musical Instrument Museum; and in New York City. “They’re a band that gives listeners a sense of real joy,” he said. “Having them here for Christmas is one more thing that makes it worth coming home for the holidays.”

Pamela Espeland: The Dakota and The Bad Plus have a long relationship. They’ve spent every Christmas here since 2001.

Lowell Pickett: It’s been wonderful to watch them grow over the years – this upstart band that was playing these irreverent versions of pop and rock hits, which is originally what got them attention in some quarters. Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” and things like that.

But they also evolved and developed as individual songwriters. It was extraordinary to watch them grow into this trio where all three members contributed equally beautiful music to the repertoire they were playing, and asserted a balance between the stuff that got them initial attention – their interpretations of songs that a lot of people were familiar with – and their own incredible compositions. More and more, they became known as a band where all three members contribute equal levels of virtuosic musicality, and all three write amazing pieces.

PLE: Do you remember when you first heard them play? Did you have any idea they would be so successful?

LP: I didn’t think of it in those terms. I don’t remember ever listening to music and thinking “Wow, this is going to be successful” about anybody. You listen to music and you enjoy it. I loved the music and really enjoyed them musically.

I thought it was wonderful that as [The Bad Plus] became more successful, they continued to have a base here. Prince did that for funk and R&B and pop music, and Soul Asylum had a big hit and stayed in Minneapolis. When somebody living in a community like the Twin Cities develops a strong national and international presence, and a career that sustains them not only creatively but financially, and they stay here, that opens doors for other musicians to do the same.

[Note: Reid Anderson and Ethan Iverson live in New York; Dave King lives in the Twin Cities.]

The Bad Plus got a lot of media attention when “These Are the Vistas” came out on Columbia in 2003. They were covered in Jazz Times and Esquire. They were called “the future of jazz” and “the great white hype.”

They were on a lot of covers. They were upstarts, and some people, like Ben Ratliff of the New York Times, were immediately taken by their musicality, creativity and virtuosity. At the same time, other people felt it was a gimmick and were dismissive of them. To watch that change over the years has been great, too. The fact is, when anybody does anything new, there’s always criticism from people in the community. That’s happened with all sorts of musicians in all sorts of genres. Dylan’s an obvious example. When Dylan plugged in, people said “That’s not folk music!” Fans of Big Band swing dismissed bebop. I remember running into someone in the 1970s who was a big supporter of jazz but didn’t consider Charlie Parker jazz.

The Bad Plus certainly got a broad variety of responses. Some were incredibly supportive and laudatory and some were very critical or dismissive. They’ve proven over the years that what they were doing was real, that their musicianship was real, their compositional skills are real, and their ensemble playing was real. There weren’t many trios at the time that played as an ensemble, because most were built around one player in the group – the Ray Brown Trio or the Ahmad Jamal Trio. There was a collaborative and cooperative element to The Bad Plus band that has also proved real over the years.

What do you think their impact has been on jazz and creative music in general?

They’re certainly one of the significant groups that have opened up an interpretation of what jazz is and can be. For music to remain vital means bringing new things to it – new ideas, new approaches, new concepts. The Bad Plus helped people understand what improvised music can be, and another way it could grow. And they’ve legitimized what they’re doing in the eyes of the world. They’ve proven over the years that their creativity and their virtuosity were the real deal. They’re just such incredible musicians, and they write so beautifully. All three of them.

Who do you think their heirs are, if any? GoGo Penguin for sure, although they’re probably more E.S.T. than TBP.

All sorts of musicians have benefitted, and in different ways. I think it’s too early to talk about who their heirs are. They’re still creating.

What thoughts do you have on Ethan leaving and Orrin coming in?

Orrin is a sensational pianist. He’s been to the Dakota several times. I know he’s played with Sean Jones and Christian McBride. I’d have to go back and figure out all the bands.

I’ve heard people say that with Ethan gone, The Bad Plus won’t be the same.

No, it won’t be the same, and that’s a good thing. What The Bad Plus are doing now isn’t the same as what they were doing 15 years ago. Back then, they were known almost exclusively for their interpretations of pop and rock songs, and now they’re known as a band that writes significant amounts of their own music.

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