Date of interview: December 1, 2017
Philip Bither is the performing arts curator for the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. He first became aware of The Bad Plus in 2003, when “These Are the Vistas” came out on Columbia. The band made four major appearances at the Walker: in 2003 at Rock the Garden, the Twin Cities’ popular annual outdoor concert, where The Bad Plus shared top billing with Wilco; in 2005 for “The Festival Dancing in Your Head,” a three-day celebration of Ornette Coleman’s genius; in 2010 for “King for Two Days,” a special event spotlighting Bad Plus drummer Dave King and featuring several of the bands he’s involved with; and, most recently, in September 2017 for “The Bad Plus Bill Frisell ’85–’95,” a Walker co-commission with Frisell as guest artist.
King and Bad Plus bassist Reid Anderson first heard Frisell at the Walker in the 1980s and ’90s, when they were high-school students. They jumped at the chance to play live with their hero on the Walker’s stage. In October, they performed with Frisell in Columbus, Ohio; Urbana, Illinois; and for six sold-out nights at the Village Vanguard.
Pamela Espeland: The commission with The Bad Plus and Bill Frisell was in the works before the band announced that Ethan would be leaving. Did the news have any effect on what happened at the Walker?
Philip Bither: Dave told me fairly early on in the development what was going on with the band shifting, and Ethan [Iverson’s] decision to move on in new directions. But he said – and all three confirmed this when they got here to start the rehearsal process – how exciting it was for them to do this kind of project. They had done a few things together around Paul Motian’s music, but no major, dig-deep project like this for the Walker, with and for Frisell. Ethan seemed fully connected and interested in the project as much as Reid and Dave. [After the Vanguard shows], Dave sent me a picture of Robert Plant backstage with the three of them, telling them how much he loved the set.
I think [The Bad Plus] is something that Minnesota and the Twin Cities should be really proud of. Even though Reid and Ethan live in New York, it’s considered a Minnesota band. The fact that this community helped give birth to the trio, and then to see the national and international success they’ve achieved, is a great reflection on the music scene here in the Twin Cities and the cultural scene at large. I’m glad that the Walker, way before my time, was able to provide opportunities to see great musicians that [Reid, Ethan and Dave] would come and check out.
PLE: Did you notice any tension between the band members in September, when they were here with Bill Frisell?
PB: No. Everybody was really cordial with us. They all seemed to love the connection with Bill. I kind of had my radar up, but my sense was that they really appreciated the opportunity to do the project, to pursue a commission with the Walker.
This was actually our first formal commission with The Bad Plus, but it had a wonderful symmetry around their connections with the Walker’s music program, which served in their teenage years as a kind of tutorial around who was doing what on the contemporary edge of jazz. They fell in love with a number of artists, Frisell in particular, and the chance to return to honor somebody who was important to them in their earlier years was exciting for them. It was exciting for us, too, to look back at our own history.
Just a couple years after [The Bad Plus] formed, we invited them to play Rock the Garden , one of the great Rock the Gardens. Then they came back to play a key role in our Ornette Coleman festival, “Dancing in Your Head” . Both The Bad Plus and [King’s band] Happy Apple played, and the combination, Bad Apple. I’ll never forget Ornette, who was in the house for the tribute concert, making a particular point backstage of telling The Bad Plus how much he appreciated their approach to his music. Of course, Ornette’s always been in the DNA of The Bad Plus, part of how they think about their music and how they play. [In 2016], The Bad Plus played Ornette’s “Science Fiction” at the Chicago Jazz Fest. There were nice links there.
The trio was the cornerstone to a celebration of Dave King’s own work [at “King for Two Days” in 2010], so it made great sense to have them back seven years later. We didn’t know when we first started talking with them [about the Frisell project] that Ethan would be stepping away, but of course, given our long history with the band, it felt great to have Ethan still in the lineup when they revisited Frisell’s work.
For The Bad Plus, the Walker has not been an annual thing or a place they play all the time but a place I think they look to as a home for unique, special moments in the trio’s career.
When did you first become aware of The Bad Plus?
I met Dave soon after moving here in 1997. I think I saw him play with some other musicians. I didn’t really know about The Bad Plus until “These Are the Vistas” came out [in 2003]. Right away, I knew this was a band Dave King was in, and I soon heard about Reid and Dave growing up here, and Ethan not that far away in Wisconsin. So I started following them.
[After “These Are the Vistas”] there was this big critical split, with some of the jazz critical community dismissing them as a novelty that just covered rock tunes. I felt like those first records were great and what jazz needed in a certain way. Not to say that jazz was just waiting for someone to cover Nirvana’s “Feels Like Teen Spirit,” but their ears were wide open and they weren’t making genre distinctions about what was and was not good music.
I think it’s healthy for jazz to have different generational and stylistic inclusions. Nobody yelled at bebop musicians in the ’40s and ’50s for doing Rodgers and Hart. I was on the side of cheering them on. Sometimes the jazz purist world gets deeply suspicious when someone is successful and is attracting big houses, like somehow this can’t be pure enough. It’s been nice to watch the broader music community, and the jazz community overall, go from being suspicious [of The Bad Plus] to taking them seriously, to the point where they’re considered one of the great American bands. They’ve proven a lot of skeptics wrong with the seriousness of their original compositions.
What do you think has been their impact on jazz and creative music?
They helped break down barriers around what jazz can wrap its arms around compositionally. There’s a playfulness and an irreverence, almost a kind of punk attitude, about shaking things up and being humorous at times. They’re committed to the importance of every gig mattering and putting on fantastic live performances. They infused new energy into the standard piano trio that has been a staple form for jazz for decades.
Not to be too regionally boosterish, but I think it’s sort of a Midwestern sensibility to be generous and collaborative and supportive of one another. Their regular-dudes, regular-people energy is somewhat tied to a Midwestern orientation. But they’re fierce musicians, and they’ve proved their critics wrong. Some people feel they’ve injected a rock energy into jazz. I think that’s simplistic. Each individual member brings his own qualities into the band in a way that gels so beautifully. Each works from distinctly different aesthetics. But the fact that they have collectively led this trio, and have all contributed as composers to the body of work, is pretty rare and pretty great.
To me, their connection to a cool and eclectic spectrum of pop and rock tunes was a positive, because they approached them creatively. They would deconstruct them, and sometimes people wouldn’t even know exactly what tune it was. People would think, “I know that melody …” and then, two-thirds of the way through, someone would say “That’s a Madonna tune!”
I love to see how connected they’ve become to so many different musicians and parts of the jazz lineage; [an example is] their recent record with Josh Redman [“The Bad Plus Joshua Redman,” 2015]. They’re so connected now that they’re an important pillar within the current jazz scene. I think that they have contributed a lot to helping shape the jazz of our time. They raised the level of the conversation. It was partly the controversy, and that’s kind of what they became known for, but that’s a reductive way of thinking about them, because they were so much more than that.