Ethan Iverson of the Bad Plus talks about the trio's new album and its ten-year history
In the decade since the Bad Plus has been together, the adventurous jazz trio has included cover songs on each of its recordings. Bassist Reid Anderson, pianist Ethan Iverson and drummer David King have deconstructed and reimagined cuts by everyone from the Pixies and Nirvana to Bowie and Blondie.
But while the Bad Plus guys can turn other people's songs inside out and make them their own, they're each damn fine composers and virtuosic players in their own right -- as evidenced on earlier discs like These Are the Vistas, Give and Prog, but especially on their latest effort, Never Stop, their first album made up entirely of original compositions.
Released in September, Never Stop is a bold collection of ten new songs that reflect the unit's confident playing style. We spoke Iverson in advance of the trio's two-night stint at Dazzle on Saturday and Sunday, December 11 and 12 about Never Stop, playing cover's and its ten-year history.
Westword: When you made Never Stop, I read that Dave King said you guys approached like making a jazz record from the '50s and '60s.
Ethan Iverson: Yeah. We're fortunate enough to have a fairly extensive touring schedule, so we learn the music on the road and get to play it quite a bit. We don't need to assemble to the compositions in the studio at all, we pretty much know how they go. One exception on the record was Dave's piece "Super America," which we learned just that day that we recorded.
I would imagine after a decade of playing together, you guys have pretty much locked it in, and I'm guessing it would be pretty easy to knock out an album in no time.
Yeah, it this point it seems clear usually what to do. Not always, but sometimes, but most of the time.
When you were making Never Stop, how many takes did you do of the tracks
The best thing is when you get in a single take. Sometimes you just have to roll up your sleeves and you've had it. On "Never Stop," the title song, I think we did about five or six takes in the end to try to get the feel right. And we ended up with the fourth take and we kept on going and did a couple more takes and we kept listening and we realized that was the one, the fourth take.
There's that scene in the Thelonious Monk documentary, Straight No Chaser, where Charlie Rouse was talking about when Monk would go in the studio, he'd do one or two takes, since he thought that was where all the feeling was. And Rouse said if you didn't nail it in those first few takes, you'd have to live with it on record for the rest of your life.
Absolutely. Well, I think Monk was really on to something there. Of course, that was a working band where they played night after night. It's still a good thing to think about. An important element.
You've probably been getting this a lot, but since Never Stop is your first album that doesn't have any covers, why did you guys decide to go with all originals this time?
Our previous record, For All I Care, was all covers, so this sort of the natural balance where we try all our compositions. In a way, it's our ten-year celebration, so we're celebrating by playing just our own music.
How do you guys decide on which covers to do, as you've always had covers on your albums? Are those all groups that you're all into?
It's sort of like we have to love the song and have to have a reason to do a cover of it. And sort of the jazz tradition is to play songs that one knows. The covers for us is just being part of the jazz tradition.
Is the name of the album, Never Stop, any indication that guys aren't going to be breaking any time soon?
I hope to keep going a long time. After ten years, the rest of it should be easy.
How would you guys say you have grown over the last decade?
Well, we probably play our instruments better, but hopefully there's an extra depth in things. It's sort of hard for us to say in a way. We're inside it. Maybe there are some things that aren't as good as they used to be. We can't even tell you.
Would you say you maybe approach things differently, whether it be compositionally or improvising?
I don't know. I think the first time we started working together, we pretty much did it the same way as we do now. It's three very powerful personalities that sort of rub up against each other, and we just sort of do this thing. I think that other groups that we play in, we don't ever play that much like we play in the Bad Plus sometimes. It's its own organism. You have to have it be that way.
When were writing tunes for Never Stop, I read that guys had sort of cinematic way of storytelling.
It's important for us to paint a picture somehow at times. Other time you're not going to have an image, but then you can develop that image.
Do the song titles come before or while you're writing the songs or after?
I think they come usually before, but sometimes afterward. I guess sometimes, you're writing a song and you're like, "Oh this is about that." I guess there's no hard and fast rule at this time.
Take "Bill Hickman at Home" for example. I know he was the stunt the driver in Bullitt and The French Connection, both of which had some amazing car chase scenes. When you sat down to write that, did you have him in mind?
Well, sort of. He was someone I was thinking about a lot. Sometimes you come up with a fragment of the melody and maybe you realize that's what the topic is about.
One last question. I couldn't seem to track this down anywhere, but I was curious about the name of the group.
Man, it's got a great story. Dave made it up. It doesn't mean anything.