Sunday, April 13, 2003

Midwestern white guys shaking up world of jazz

By Josh L. Dickey
The Associated Press

NEW YORK - It's a weeknight at the Village Vanguard, a proverbial jazz pantheon that helped nurture the legend of guys with names like Miles and Dizzy and Thelonius, and someone is brazenly hammering Black Sabbath on the club's very expensive piano.

Meet The Bad Plus, a self-described "power-piano trio" from the Midwest, and while they mean no disrespect, they are doing some unspeakable things to people's notions of well-heeled jazz.

Imagine the shock after they charm you with a burbling, hypnotic little lullaby, then blast into some untouchable rock anthem, tearing it to ribbons, sticking it back together at odd angles and throwing it in your face as if to say: "Ha! You thought this one rocked before?!"

At the moment, they're busy with Black Sabbath's "Iron Man," churning it to a tempestuous, chaotic climax.

Stage right is Ethan Iverson, originally from Menomonie, Wis., all cue-ball dome and chunky specs, fingers fluttering on the keys. Stage left is Dave King of Minneapolis, thwacking and popping his drum kit in full flail. Between them is a fellow Minnesotan, the willowy Reid Anderson, propped on his bass, eyeballs rolling skullward.

It's nothing but three guys and their acoustic instruments, but the sound is colossal, spiraling upward, then plunging down, now skidding out of control.

"There's some seriously strange music we play," Iverson says. "We do some of this music that - I don't even know how it gets over in retrospect, but then people's reaction is like, 'Yeah! It's been like seeing a rock band or something.' Which I don't really think we are."

New generation of jazz

There's no mistaking The Bad Plus for anything other than a jazz outfit, though circumstantial evidence to the contrary cannot be ignored.

Each hovers around the age of 30, quite young by the standard of jazz, where dues-paying is almost as important as chops.

Their first major-label album, These Are the Vistas, was produced by Tchad Blake, whose previous clients include Pearl Jam, Peter Gabriel and Sheryl Crow.

The record is on Columbia Records, a major-label signing at a time when conventional jazz labels are dropping artists.

And unlike most jazzmen, who traditionally take whatever gigs come their way, The Bad Plus are promoting Vistas by touring both Europe and all over the United States, with stops including Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia, St. Paul, Minn., and several back in New York, where Anderson and Iverson now live.

"It just doesn't happen in the jazz world like that," says Christopher Porter, editor in chief of Jazz Times. "They're treating them like a pop act, hitting the road, doing interviews and trying to build momentum. ... Which I'm fine with, because I think they're fantastic."

Liked by 'Rolling Stone'

The unique attitude of Vistas - 10 tracks of little more than The Bad Plus playing together in a room - earned an eyebrow-raising four out of five stars in Rolling Stone magazine. ("You can count on one hand the number of jazz records that have ever been reviewed in Rolling Stone," Porter says.)

It may have helped that Vistas includes renderings of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," Blondie's "Heart of Glass" and "Flim," an addictive, chiming little tune by dance-electronicians Aphex Twin. Yes, they're covers, but co-opted in a way that's beginning to define The Bad Plus as a band.

Even that - being a band - is a concept unique to jazz, where most artists are either leaders or sidemen.

"I would not have put up with some of this stuff, as a leader," says Iverson, whose lifelong obsession with the avant-garde had shielded him from popular music; he'd never heard "Smells Like Teen Spirit" until his bandmates suggested it.

"The idea of even playing this Nirvana song, this was generated by Reid and Dave," he says. "All this rock-and-roll charisma that this band has gotten - I've had nothing whatsoever to do with that, except to be extremely lucky."

It isn't rock 'n' roll

But rock charisma doesn't entirely define them.

Take, for instance, "Everywhere You Turn," which fades in on Vistas from thin air. One might think it's accomplished with the turn of a knob - until seen live, when King starts his drums hissing, barely audible like a drizzle on a tin roof, and the band gently increases the volume to a crashing, emotional tide.

"You immediately don't want to use any studio trickery as a jazz musician," King says. "You're so used to thinking along the lines of how do we pull this off with just these three instruments?"

Shunning the leader-sideman model also brings out the widely divergent compositional styles of all three musicians; their original songs range from the absurd, playful march of "1972 Bronze Medalist" to the rolling, classical-piano kaleidoscope of "Silence Is the Question" and the cosmic psychedelia of "Neptune, the Planet."

Also, they say, there's a sense of unity to buffer the inevitable criticisms that come with operating in spite of decades-old jazz traditions.

"There's a certain psychological component, when you're playing in a band," Anderson says. "There's like this united front. We can go into the Vanguard and play 'Iron Man,' and say, 'You know what? We're in this together. This may not go over very well, but ... we're gonna play 'Iron Man' and see what happens."

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