Photo of the band The Bad Plus. L-R: Dave King, Ethan Iverson, Reid Anderson (Cameron Wittig )
Drawing inspiration from the pop world is far from a new phenomenon in the jazz tradition, but for the Bad Plus, it was a move that proved controversial when the group first came on the scene.
Debuting on a major label in 2003 with "These Are the Vistas," the trio's muscular sound was derided by jazz purists as too loud. Some critics also derided it as "fake jazz" — a sound angled toward commercial success, the proof being covers that pulled from the alt-rock world including Nirvana and Blondie. However, the album attracted young fans, and in another rarity for instrumental music at the time, earned raves in glossy mainstream magazines such as Newsweek and Esquire.
"It was a real honor because I never, ever, ever thought I would be controversial," Ethan Iverson says with a laugh, speaking by phone from Brooklyn before the group heads out on tour (the band plays the Mint on Tuesday). "Not like my heroes Ornette Coleman or Thelonious Monk . . . I was like, 'Man, we've really made it.'
"But that was wrong to attack us for that because I don't know of another group that's done as much to alert the larger audience to how great jazz is, or the freedom of improvisation. Show after show in this decade we've been performing, I've had people come up to me to say, 'I didn't know I like jazz, but now I'm going to check it out.' We've really been messengers for the music."
In addition to holding down the piano spot in one of the most adventurous jazz trios for the last 10 years (the group's eighth studio album, "Made Possible," was released late last month), he's collaborated with Billy Hart on the veteran drummer's lush 2012 album, "All Our Reasons" and is one of the most insightful presences on the jazz Internet with his blog Do the Math.
Still, in another break from jazz tradition as far as piano trios are concerned, Iverson would prefer if he weren't the focus of the Bad Plus. "We're sensitive about that topic," he says. "Anyone who knows anything about us, so much of the real creative force, the real juice of the band, comes from Reid [Anderson] and Dave [King] as composers and conceptualists.
"There's a great reward if you find a community, if you find people who will just play together no matter what. In this day and era, you need to take the leader's name off the billing and try and do it together."
While an eclectic taste for covers may have earned the group headlines, the Bad Plus has never been shy about its own compositional gifts. Apart from an album-closing tribute to the late Paul Motian, the rest of the new record is a showcase for the band's unique vision that for the first time includes the occasional electronic accent.
Described by Iverson as a "natural step," given the group's musical interests, the new effect is used sparingly, such as with the fuzzy synthesizer under the clockwork "Seven Minute Mind," but the group's sound also is continuing to evolve, particularly on the locomotive-paced "In Stitches," which passes in a blink despite stretching beyond 14 minutes.
Though Iverson defers to the collective with the Bad Plus, his blog is where he shines alone.
Do the Math features interviews with luminaries such as Wynton Marsalis, Keith Jarrett and Jason Moran, as well as Iverson's own musings, such as his critical take on the Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition. The decades-old competition pits young jazz artists against each other in the hopes of recognizing the top talent of the year, an effort Iverson described as futile on one hand and potentially destructive on another as artists attempt to conform to a specific vision of jazz.
"Obviously, artistic competitions have a dark side," Iverson says. "I just worry about the vicious cycle if jazz is [reduced to] a certain amount of parameters to try and win a competition. . . . I think it's more that to grow the audience, to grow the fans of the music, there needs to be distinctive, exciting music that feels somehow new.
"So really, maybe even me taking a potshot at the competition is sort of pointless. It's up to musicians to make music people want to hear. It's that simple."