When Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” premiered in Paris about 100 years ago, a riot broke out. Not a riot as in laughter or amusement, but riot as in describing the chaos and fistfights erupting between those who supported and opposed the musical choreography unfolding up on the stage. Oh yeah, this was a ballet. It makes you wonder what these people would’ve done to Milli Vanilli.
We still experience musical controversies today — a story in The Guardian last month detailed audiences’ continued rejection of the modern classical movement Stravinsky helped create — but the polemics more often involve money and copyright, not the music itself. New bands rarely push listeners to throw down their ballet doilies and stake a line in the sand. An exception occurred with the 2003 release of the jazz album, “These Are the Vistas,” the major-label debut of Minneapolis-based trio the Bad Plus.
Traditionalists and purists recoiled at some of the group’s musical sources, especially their interpretations of songs like Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” declaring these melodies too thin to improvise over in a jazz context. They also objected to the way the band approached jazz (i.e., the boisterous drumming of Dave King and the rousing percussive style of pianist Ethan Iverson). And these were valid criticisms.
But then people began mentioning that the group’s popularity might somehow stem from the fact its members were white. People began to question why the Bad Plus landed lengthy gigs at venerable jazz institutions like the Village Vanguard over other deserving musicians. How exactly the band was responsible for either of those phenomena was never explained.
Opinions like these veer from the paths of logic and reason. But they do make one wonder about what we care about when we care about music today, and what those preferences reveal of ourselves.
In advance of their four shows this weekend in Denver at Dazzle, we spoke with drummer Dave King recently about the band’s latest album, “Never Stop,” their first work of all-original compositions.
Q: When the band plays live it seems there is a lot of cueing off of each other. Did it help to record the new album in one room with everyone in plain sight?
A: We have to make sure we can see each other at every recording, but for this one we wanted more of that ‘room sound’ of older jazz albums. So I wasn’t in an isolation booth — when you have an isolated drum kit you can play with outsized dynamics. But on this album we wanted to sound more like we do when we play live. We’ve always used the studio as kind of a fantasy, anyway. This time we wanted to use the room dynamics like a live performance.
I was just looking at the publicity photo where you’re all running across the bridge like Charlie’s Angels — it actually looks like a pretty long bridge, how long had you guys been running by the time the photo was snapped, nobody looks winded?
Yeah, we’re trying to enter the new decade in tip-top shape. The light reminded me of the subway chases in “French Connection.” Actually, that photo was taken at the Walker Art Center bridge (in Minneapolis).
Do you play a song differently each time you perform it?
If we were to think about it, yes, but we also try not to think about it too much. So we always write a different set list every night, and we try to push things. You can get into a rut where you try to stay with something that works, but we’re very aware of the limits of doing that.
I know it’s a daunting proposition, but do you ever foresee the Bad Plus doing an album or live show where the performances spring more from ideas than finished songs?
Ethan and I have been doing free jazz concerts in Buffalo Collision with (saxophonist) Tim Berne and (cellist) Hank Roberts in Europe. A two-and-a-half-week tour where you improvise for 90 minutes each night is very challenging. As the Bad Plus, we just recently did our first totally improvised concert at the London Jazz Festival with (composer, multi-instrumentalist) Django Bates. It was great. That was the first time for us. And yeah, I think at some point we plan on making a record like that.
Do you feel you guys sometimes get blamed for the paltry publicity other great players seem to receive, the Ken Vandermarks and Jason Morans and Stefon Harris’ of the world?
We were (blamed). And you can’t help but feel it. Ken Vandermark is a friend of mine. Jason Moran is in print as a fan of our music. We love the fact that we’ve made music that got people excited, either positively or negatively. And if you don’t like our music, that’s fine. But the overtly negative attacks felt ill-informed and got into zones that we have no control of. It was like asking, “Why doesn’t Captain Beefheart sing more ballads?” It was ridiculous. We’re here trying to make good music, but if you’re gonna challenge us, you better be able to bring it, because we don’t fuck around — we’re not just dedicated to what were doing, we’re extremely dedicated. Extremely.
This is no disrespect to Ethan Iverson, who’s great, but I’ve never really thought of the Bad Plus as a piano trio, just a trio. Is there anything to that line of thinking?
Absolutely, and Ethan would not take that wrongly because that is absolutely our thinking. It’s a democratic thing which goes beyond the business and promotional end of all this and involves us personally. We don’t pre-plan it, we allow everyone to express. We’re interested in those spaces that are less rational. We’re really just trying to search for that new thing that can be birthed, that is based on taking a chance.
Is it even important for you to be called a jazz trio?
We don’t insist on anything, but we love being called a jazz group and being players of organic, improvised music that takes on the time that it is played. You can take the social current and the climate of your life and channel it in jazz. We’re an honest statement of our time and place.
Denver-based writer Sam DeLeo is a published poet, has seen two of his plays produced and is currently finishing his second novel.