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The Bad Plus — Inspiration through improvisation

Scott Haas

The Bad Plus, the famed musical trio out of Minneapolis and based now in NYC, redefines what jazz is through complex improvisations and interpretations of popular music and an array of surprising tunes. By expanding the horizons of what jazz is, these musicians invite others to rethink what jazz can embrace and inspire. The Bad Plus played Scullers Jazz Club in Allston on October 25 and 26. The Banner caught up with Reid Anderson, the trio’s bassist, by phone from New York.

You and drummer Dave King — the core of The Bad Plus — have been together for something like 20 years. Recently, you brought in pianist Orrin Evans to replace Ethan Iverson. How do you keep it fresh?

What we’re doing is based on improvisation a lot of the time. So as a trio we share, shall we say, aesthetic values that make it all extremely compatible. Playing together as long as Dave and I have also means that we have an extra level of comfort and language. And we all believe in the song, with a capital “S.” 

Part of the band’s claim to fame is its indefinability: Popular tunes that you coax out sounds and meaning from that were implied in the original versions, but that you reshape. Maybe your version of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” is a good example — not a song one associates with jazz, but you make it legit. Your version, too, is so different from jazz pianist Robert Glasper’s take. What’s the attraction of the song for you?

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” is one of the earliest of our so-called cover songs, and the idea of taking on this piece, which has massive cultural significance was, in part, to find that it lent itself to improvisation. Additionally, it has qualities somewhat like modal jazz, and Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” comes to mind. I would say that what we try to avoid is to ‘make something into jazz,’ per se; we’re more of the mindset that a song can be a blank slate, and look within it to find something else that’s there. It’s almost like sculpture: Removing the marble to see the figure inside.

The Bad Plus is often referred to as “avant-garde,” which can mean so many things to so many people. Does the term mean anything to you when applied to your music?

Well, ‘avant-garde’ I think it gives us a license to explore. It’s an opportunity to use our imagination, to push boundaries. These boundaries appear in all facets of our lives. We’re within the 21st century. We don’t need to be afraid. It’s like this: Now that we can do anything, what will we do?

Given the extraordinary difference between what The Bad Plus is doing compared to other jazz musicians, did you ever consider other genres as primary? I mean, you attended the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, which is focused on classical music rather than jazz.

That ties into the avant-garde. The Bad Plus is a safe haven for us to be who we are. Who among us lives in a pure environment, musical or otherwise? My introduction to music, for example, was listening to rock radio while growing up in the Twin Cities. I still love that music and listen to it. Why deny it? There’s a lot of valuable information there. I think it’s funny that people have an attitude about that. I love a good hook! That music serves a purpose, and jazz ignores that at its peril.

What you do is really inspiring for young musicians who are just building confidence while trying to integrate their personal musical interests into the form of jazz. How did that come about for you?

It comes from acknowledging what’s going on around you. And it helps to be in a community, however small, that’s supportive of that. As a young musician, I was narrow-minded — at least that’s how I look at it now. You either move from that or you don’t. I remember a point of opening up, and finding that very liberating, and very fruitful.

Does The Bad Plus have any current, past, or historical connections to the music scene in Boston?

None of us went to school here or lived in Boston, but in New York we fell in with the post-Berklee and post-New England Conservatory crowds. As a musician, you can’t help but interact with people who have come through Boston one way or another.

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