Are the Bad Plus a pop- and rock-influenced jazz trio? Or are they a power trio whose members like to play jazz? It's really a bit of both. But in the brave new world of postmodern jazz, identity crises are encouraged. Reid Anderson (bass) and David King (drums) grew up in Minnesota, while pianist Ethan Iverson spent his formative years in Wisconsin. Eventually, after crossing paths in such unlikely places as high-school rock showcases and tentative free jazz performances inside Upper Midwestern diners, the three first performed as the Bad Plus in 1990, but they would spend the '90s embracing separate influences, each musician developing a unique musical language that would gestate into the trio's iconoclastic jazz template. Anderson released three albums on the Spanish indie Fresh Sound, Iverson was music director of New York City's prestigious Mark Morris Dance Group, and King worked with his Happy Apple combo, as well as 12 Rods.
In August of 2001, the bandmembers put aside their other projects and released The Bad Plus through Fresh Sound. It established that the Bad Plus were unafraid to stray from the confines of jazz, but confident enough in their forays to make them stimulating, and not simply novelties. The debut was a critical success, garnering best-of honors from The New York Times and Chicago Reader, among others. An "official" bootleg followed in 2002, eventually going out of print.
It was a particularly memorable performance at New York's Village Vanguard that led Columbia Records to sign the Bad Plus; in February of 2003, the label released These Are the Vistas, which was produced by stranger-to-jazz and ex-Latin Playboy Tchad Blake. The album presented original compositions from each musician, as well as a few ringers from the musical world outside the borders of jazz. Their re-imaginings of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (which Iverson had reportedly never heard before), Blondie's "Heart of Glass," and Aphex Twin's "Flim" caused tails to wag, but it was the Bad Plus' powerful mixture of personality and performance that really defined them.
The Bad Plus toured throughout spring and summer 2003 in support of their major-label debut. The band's second album, Give, followed in spring 2004. For 2005's Suspicious Activity?, the trio produced the album with Blake at Real World Studios in England. PROG followed in 2007. In 2009 the Bad Plus teamed up with vocalist Wendy Lewis, adding a new dimension to the sound of their sixth album, For All I Care. The following year they continued to shake things up, releasing Never Stop, the group's first album of all-original material. The studio album Made Possible was released in September of 2012. After extensive touring and some side projects by the bandmembers, the Bad Plus returned to the studio and recorded their own version of Igor Stravinsky's ballet The Rite of Spring. It was released by Sony Masterworks in March of 2014, followed by Inevitable Western, a collection of original material issued in August.
The trio then paired with saxophonist Joshua Redman for the 2015 collaborative effort The Bad Plus Joshua Redman. Stemming from a recording session that followed Redman and the Bad Plus' weeklong stint at New York's Blue Note jazz club in 2012, the album featured brand-new compositions as well as reworkings of the Bad Plus songs "Dirty Blonde" and "Silence Is the Question." The album also garnered a Grammy nomination for Best Improvised Jazz Solo for Redman's performance on "Friend or Foe." In 2016, they returned with It's Hard, an eclectic collection of cover songs including reworkings of songs by Prince, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, TV on the Radio, Ornette Coleman, and others. ~ Johnny Loftus