Rock and Jazz have always had an uneasy alliance. When artists in one of those genres have attempted to incorporate elements of the other into their work, they have more often than not been castigated by purists on both sides of the musical equation and found themselves in the no-man’s-land of alienating fans and critics alike. The Bad Plus has avoided this unenviable circumstance by adhering to the traditions of Jazz and honoring that heritage, certainly in its original compositions but specifically when the musicians have ventured into the minefield of translating iconic Rock anthems into the Jazz idiom.
Over the 17 years of The Bad Plus’ history, the Minneapolis-based piano/upright bass/drums trio has managed to reinvent some of the most powerful and recognizable songs in the Rock canon as engaging and compelling Jazz workouts. Through a bizarre and fascinating process of key and tempo shifts, melody adaptation/ deconstruction and taking a compositional approach to arranging, The Bad Plus has successfully invested towering Rock classics with sparkling Jazz classicism while maintaining a wire-walking love and respect for both musical forms.
Equally impressive in all this is the range of songs that The Bad Plus has interpreted over the years, from a Jazz-carnival-of-the-damned reworking of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” to wildly evocative takes on Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Lithium.” Along the way, The Bad Plus has inhabited and retooled the work of David Bowie, Queen, Pixies, Rush, The Bee Gees, Black Sabbath, Radiohead, Wilco, Blondie, Yes, Aphex Twin and Country legend Roger Miller, among many others.
The Bad Plus brings that same spirit of invention and transformation to its original material. The trio’s compositional skills are on full display on all of its albums, but particularly on 2005’s Suspicious Activity? and 2010’s all-original Never Stop. The band’s self-penned material features a similar Jazz-power-trio approach, with melodic yet untethered piano runs, sinewy bass lines that simultaneously anchor and lift the melody and propulsive drumming that serves as both pulse and counterpoint.
The wrinkle in the latest chapter of The Bad Plus story is the recent departure of founding pianist Ethan Iverson and the arrival of Orrin Evans to the fold. The chemistry between Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King was well documented and indisputable, and Evans now has a very big bench to fill. The change has been in the works for close to a year, so Evans was presumably hired for his like-minded skill set and has been cramming for his Bad Plus live debut. He made his studio introduction with last week’s release of Never Stop II, yet another album stocked with original material. Early reviews are enthusiastic about Evans’ addition to The Bad Plus, so it seems safe to say that the band has passed its chemistry exam.