The Bad Plus, Jeremy Pelt
January 1, 1970Just the basic two items this week. The Jazz Notes column is an interview with Ethan Iverson of The Bad Plus, whose performance tonight I'll be reviewing for Monday's paper — a change from earlier plans to review tonight's John Coltrane Memorial Concert, featuring McCoy Tyner's trio and Gary Bartz. (My editor made the switch Friday afternoon without saying why.)
The Calendar Jazz Pick was Jeremy Pelt.
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They're giving jazz a jolt
The Bad Plus has sparked both interest and controversy
By Bill Beuttler, Globe Correspondent | September 30, 2005
The Bad Plus makes a lot of noise, both musically (early on one wag described it as "the loudest piano trio ever") and in the strong reactions its sound provokes, pro and con. Detractors consider the group wildly overrated, but there's no arguing that bassist Reid Anderson, pianist Ethan Iverson, and drummer David King have sparked an enthusiastic following of jazz neophytes as well as veteran fans. Their third studio CD for Columbia Records, "Suspicious Activity?," came out last week, and like their previous releases it features primarily original music, along with one of their trademark pop covers. We spoke with Iverson last week as the group was wrapping up a six-night stand at the Village Vanguard and preparing for the tour that will bring it to the Somerville Theatre tomorrow.
Q. Does it please you that the Bad Plus is helping lure young people to jazz?
A. I've never needed to have anyone show me the way that jazz is a wonderful, powerful music. But when a young kid comes up to me after the show and says, 'Wow, I didn't know I would like jazz. I'm gonna have to check this out,' I really feel like I could die in peace. Maybe sometimes all people need is an entrance, and if we can provide that entrance to listening to Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus, what more could I ask for, really?
Q. Speaking of Mingus, you've said that the Duke Ellington trio album with Mingus and Max Roach, "Money Jungle," and the tune "African Flower" in particular, were forerunners to the Bad Plus. How so?
A. The bass and drums on that piece is a rare example where the three musicians are all playing their own elaborate part. Mingus is playing these vibrato, tremolo-type figures, and Roach is playing some sort of beat that I'm sure is just his beat, not an African beat, but at the same time it's with mallets. It references something else, not a swing beat. And Ellington's piano statement is so beautiful, and he doesn't improvise a lot. But the sort of otherworldly beauty is generated by the three musicians playing together. It's not the bass and drums walking, and the piano player taking a solo. The Bad Plus is definitely doing that on some of our pieces, where each musician has a part to play.
Q. It's been quite a while since a jazz group has generated as much controversy as the Bad Plus has. Are you surprised by it?
A. I guess it was a surprise, mostly because I consider myself a very uncontroversial person. But the way that I look at it, it's a real honor. All my heroes were controversial — whether it's Stravinsky or Ornette Coleman or Thelonious Monk. I'm not saying that we're like any of those guys, but I am saying that I know that all my heroes had to put up with that type of response.
Q. The skeptics seem to be an older crowd, people already familiar with jazz.
Maybe [an older] generation has trouble relating to something where it's a trio, but it's not really piano front and center. In a certain way, I think the Bad Plus isn't a piano player's band, because the expression of the music is so ferocious. The other thing is that the Bad Plus doesn't use much conventional bebop jazz harmony. I think that's a big stumbling block. But our response to that is Jelly Roll Morton didn't use that 2-5 harmony, and neither did Ornette Coleman. I just see the spectrum of sound as being limitless, and the three of us have always been interested in having our own sound. And I will say that I feel that the Bad Plus is very recognizable.
Q. It's become almost obligatory for the Bad Plus to include at least one pop song on each album that no one would expect a jazz group to cover. On the new CD, it's the "Chariots of Fire" theme. How does the band decide which tunes get covered?
A. Well, we like big melodies that we can really re-imagine as a new art piece. That's what all the covers are really about: Give us this tune that everybody knows and see what we can turn it into. That's very much in the tradition of Coltrane playing "My Favorite Things" or Thelonious Monk playing "Just a Gigolo." A big melody, and their version as a unique art object, that has actually not much to do with the original.
Q. There's a sense of humor and playfulness running through your work that's been largely absent in modern jazz.
A. We do have a sort of Midwestern sensibility about stuff that includes a lot of goofing around. But I have to say that as much as we goof around, we're deadly serious about trying to play our instruments well.
Q. You spent five years as music director for the Mark Morris Dance Group. How has that affected your playing and composing? Or has it?
A. I don't think there's a direct influence musically, but Mark's work is a fabulous blend of something that's very intellectual but also something that's accessible. Or maybe say the blend of high and low. And I humbly put the Bad Plus in that tradition as well.
Visiting artists: The Berklee College of Music announced that saxophonist Donald Harrison and pianist Henry Butler are the first two recipients of residencies set up to bring New Orleans musicians to campus in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. A half-dozen or more recipients are expected to be named, depending on the level of contributions to the New Orleans Visiting Artists Fund.
Harrison, in town last weekend to lead Berklee's New Orleans Resurrection Brass Band in Boston's Grand Parade, said after Katrina he spent three days stranded in the Hyatt Regency New Orleans.
Harrison's residency includes returning to Berklee in October for master classes and private lessons and introducing students to the finer points of the music of his hometown. "I play a lot of instruments," Harrison says, "so I'll be showing various aspects of how to play New Orleans music."
© Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company
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Calendar Jazz Picks
Regattabar, Charles Hotel, One Bennett St., Cambridge. 617-395-7757. 7:30 p.m. $16.
It's been seven years since Jeremy Pelt graduated from the Berklee College of Music, moved to New York, and joined the Mingus Big Band. Since then, he's emerged as the hottest new trumpeter on the scene since Roy Hargrove and Nicholas Payton. Pelt's affiliation with the Mingus band continues, and he's simultaneously a member of both the Lewis Nash Septet and the Cannonball Adderley Legacy Band featuring Louis Hayes — that was him on the front line with the Adderley group at last month's JVC Jazz Festival Newport. But Pelt leads his own projects, too. His 2003 disc of standards, "Close to My Heart," stirred critic Nat Hentoff to opine in the Wall Street Journal: "It is the beat of Jeremy Pelt's heart that ... underscores the future of jazz." Pelt's latest, "Identity," came out this summer to yet more rave reviews. The New York Times' Ben Ratliff called it Pelt's "best record yet, the most confident and direct." This time the focus was on 10 Pelt originals. "The goal," writes Pelt in the liner notes, "was to try and define a voice within my compositions, as well as establish a firm musical direction." Mission accomplished.
Sat 10-1 The Bad Plus The boundary-pushing trio of Ethan Iverson (piano), Reid Anderson (bass), and David King (drums) started drumming up both controversy and new jazz listeners when it covered "Smells Like Teen Spirit" a couple of years ago, and has since tackled tunes by the Police, Blondie, and Queen. Their newest CD, "Suspicious Activity?," released last week, has a similarly avant-garde go at the theme from "Chariots of Fire." Allston-based Color and Talea will open. Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Sq., Somerville. 617-876-7777. 8 p.m. $22-$28.