When your roommate asks you what you're doing Tuesday night, you'll have to say, "I'm going to see a jazz trio."You'll probably mislead your roommate into thinking you dig Kenny G, Michael Bublé or Pat Metheny. But what else can you say?
The Bad Plus don't sing, they're all about improvisation and they play traditional jazz instruments (piano, upright bass, drums). They're jazz. Even if drummer Dave King is loath to call himself a jazz drummer.
"I want to protect myself ascetically because I don't want people to picture me playing at a Sheraton hotel,"King says. "It's like what they say: "A million cocktail musicians have destroyed what a few geniuses created.'"
The trio's music doesn't swing or bop, but it's also not Phishy or (too) reminiscent of Medeski, Martin & Wood. King and bassist Reid Anderson grew up listening to classic rock, but there's no fusion feel to The Bad Plus. Instead, like experimentalists Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman, The Bad Plus create new music-which we still gotta call jazz, because, as previously mentioned, what the fuck else can we call it?
"We truly feel like we're the most honest jazz group out there because we're not pretending to be Miles Davis,"says King. "We're playing from the truest part of ourselves. When you hear us, you can feel that we're dedicated to it. I would question whether you can feel the same thing when you hear Wynton Marsalis play.
"You can hear that he loves jazz, but can you hear another motive, too? Is he doing it to steer people's opinions about what jazz is and what jazz isn't? His playing just seems loaded with all this other bullshit."
And here's where the diatribe begins. Like some kind of jazz Robert Moses, Marsalis has spent his career reconstructing the music's history to fit his vision, which starts with Dixieland and ends with Kind of Blue. Meanwhile, King has spent his career pissing on Marsalis' reconstruction.
"The irony is that we all grew up loving those early Wynton records,"he says. "But that was before he made $10 billion trying to steer the entire jazz education program to his direction and became a zealot who wouldn't let anything new in.... But you know, when Wynton is all alone in his apartment, he's cranking up Led Zeppelin. I'll guarantee it. You don't think his drummer Jeff Watts loves John Bonham? You put on "When the Levee Breaks' and Watts is going ape-shit. But can he tell Wynton he digs it, or that he digs Radiohead, and keep his gig? I don't know."
While King thinks the new traditionalists' attempt to keep jazz pure is moronic, he and his band have been accused of using jazz's oldest gimmick-covering rock tunes-to draw in listeners. On every one of their albums there's a cover that could be considered a pander or ironic or both, including "Smells Like Teen Spirit,""Heart of Glass,""Iron Man"and "Chariots of Fire."
King says the covers aren't jokes. Jazz is about taking on standards, but The Bad Plus don't see a point in doing the hundredth version of "Straight, No Chaser."So they started doing rock tunes with worthy melodies-or tunes that confounded pianist Ethan Iverson.
"Ethan's a different kind of guy,"King says. "He listened to Art Tatum religiously when he was 13 years old. He wrote a tune called "Modern' in fifth grade. He wore a suit to school from second grade until he graduated from high school."
When the trio first began playing together, King and Anderson brainstormed rock tunes to cover. When Iverson revealed he'd never heard The Who, the two began digging into Iverson's rock ignorance.
"Jokingly, we suggested Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit,' and he asked, "Who is that?'"King says. "We knew we had to do it because we knew Ethan would approach the song the same way he'd approach Stravinsky."
Since recording "Teen Spirit,"the band's tastes and ambition have expanded. It probably irks Wynton, but earlier this year they did a six-night stint at jazz's most legendary venue, the Village Vanguard. Last month, they performed a seven-movement score with the Mark Morris Modern Dance Group. This week, they're releasing their new album produced by Tony Platt (who ran the boards for AC/DC's Back in Black, Foreigner's 4 and albums by Iron Maiden, Cheap Trick and Motörhead).
"If you get past the press blurb about how we play "Smells Like Teen Spirit' and you actually check out what we're doing, you'll see we're true to it,"King says. "We're interested in improvised music that has no stylist boundaries, so we're going to confuse people that want to hold on to boundaries."
In other words, they're a jazz trio.
The Bad Plus play at Saville Theatre, 8 p.m. on Tuesday, May 8. $10 (free for Jazz88.3 members). 619-388-3037.
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