444But the Bad Plus is not your average jazz band and never has aspired to be. In 2003, the trio's sophomore album, These Are the Vistas, took the world by storm. Not just the jazz world, either: Mainstream media, from Esquire to Rolling Stone, celebrated the vibrant playing and fell hard for the group's pop- and rock-inspired covers, which included interpretations of Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit and Blondie's Heart of Glass.
Critics everywhere asked: Was this what jazz had been waiting for through years of declining revenue and lagging popular enthusiasm?
For Anderson, pianist Ethan Iverson and drummer Dave King, it's a question that lies outside the context of how and why they make their music. "Our esthetic is, first of all, to have an environment where the three of us can be who we are," Anderson says. "We don't have to carry the flag for jazz, we don't have to have the weight of that kind of responsibility when we're making music or when we're conceiving of music."
Most of the band's subsequent albums have mixed original material with popular covers. But on the group's new album, Made Possible, there is no Nirvana or Blondie. There are only original compositions by the three band members, and one cover in tribute to the late jazz drummer and composer Paul Motian.
Made Possible is a study in contrasts. It is one of the group's most complex recordings, yet its most striking moments are utterly simple.
Initially, the band wanted to make a studio album that experimented with electronic sounds. "We just sort of collectively, without discussing it much, thought, 'Hey, maybe this is the right moment to try something like that,'" Anderson says.
It took two days to record the material at the Clubhouse recording studio in Rhinebeck, N.Y. After the tracks had been laid down, Anderson, the primary electronic music fan of the group, spent an additional week or so working with drum machines, synthesizers and samplers to add a new layer to the recording.
While the electronic elements lend a fresh edge to the music, Anderson said many of the compositions are aimed at breaking things down. Minimalism and repetition, he said, served as guiding principles throughout the processes of composing and recording.
This was especially true for Anderson in composing In Stitches, a hauntingly emotional, 14-minute track in which the instruments engage in a tortured tug-of-war. "In Stitches was one of these songs that is absolutely not minimalist in practice, but, at least at the core, my sort of temptation was to really just focus in on these few elements and take it as far as it could go."
Regardless of intent, most would not call the songs on Made Possible simple. Odd meters, free improvisation, dissonant harmonies, epic climaxes and all-around virtuosity shine in every song. But a subtle shift is apparent, a tangible electric current flowing precisely at the moments when the music is totally unfettered by the drum kits and the samplers, or when the piano and bass drop out to reveal just brushes on a snare drum. This is the Bad Plus doing minimalism, and it's anything but boring.
Part of what makes the group's sound so distinctive is that the musicians use their technical chops to produce music that is enjoyable for a variety of fans, not just jazz listeners. "I don't believe that complexity is necessarily a barrier to accessibility," Anderson says. "I think that what makes our music accessible is that, really, it's about clarity and it's about the song."
Anderson believes the band's success attracting punk, funk and rock audiences owes to the fact that they are, first and foremost, a band. It's an image that stands in opposition to the direction jazz has taken over the years, in which most groups are named for their leaders, and an evolving roster of musicians fills out the band.
"It's something you can sink your teeth into," Anderson said. "But I think jazz, because it's based so much on individual virtuosity, it's hard to... connect with the total experience of the music. I just think that's one thing to me that hinders the progress of jazz in terms of attracting a wider audience.
"What means the most to me in a way is just when somebody is a fan of the Bad Plus, when they come to see us it's because they want to see the Bad Plus," Anderson adds, "and they know our music, and it's not just a random, 'Oh, I'm going to go hear some random jazz because I think I should listen to jazz,' or something like that."
The members of the Bad Plus have known each other much of their lives. Anderson and King grew up together in Minnesota, and the three first played together in 1989, 11 years before they founded the Bad Plus. Each has different tastes and influences (though Anderson says they all love Ornette Coleman's 1972 album, Science Fiction). But Anderson said they each bring something different to the table.
"It's important friction to have," he said. "The kind of ideals or esthetics or whatever it is that brought us together feels like it's still there."
The Bad Plus plays the West End Cultural Centre tonight at 8 p.m.
Tickets are $25 at 989-4656 or in person at the Jazz Winnipeg office, 007-100 Arthur St.
-- The Washington Post