By Andrew Lentz Originally Published In DRUM! Magazine's December 2010 Issue
Oh, brother, we thought just before getting on the horn with Bad Plus drummer Dave King. Time to swim in deep waters with an improvisational trio – you know, the kind that plays dinner theatres for polite audiences. Can’t we name-check the Kind Of Blue box set and call it a day?
It’s precisely this line of thinking that got us into trouble with the native Minnesotan. Ordinarily he’s as nice as shoofly pie, but when it comes to modern crossover jazz, dude gave us a piece of his mind.
“We believe there are a lot of people out there that want to be challenged by music,” he practically yells. “It’s not just a vehicle for blowing chops, it’s actual songs!”
Easy, Dave. Deep breaths …
“There’s a lot of music out there to be digested and not in a way like, ’Oh, I like hip-hop so we’re going to go out and get a DJ to sit in with us.’ It’s not like that. We’re rooted in traditional acoustic instruments and we’re rooted in the piano-trio format, but being more modern, we’re very interested in the texts underneath all of these things.”
Did he just say texts?
Scholarly rant aside, The Bad Plus’ pop sensibilities stretch the gray matter without feeling like Ayurvedic yoga on new disc Never Stop. Stravinsky. Ornette Coleman. Black Sabbath. A host of major music memes are deconstructed and built back up into head bob—able instrumental jams. “We’re interested in taking from the life experience we’ve had of being exposed to a lot of different music, not just jazz,” he says. “It’s not an honest position if you don’t feel you’ve been affected by all this stuff.”
In order to pull off the kitchen-sink experiment, The Bad Plus is basically reverse-engineered so that the group’s structure flowed from the musical ideas, not the other way around. “It’s a refugee camp for the wayward sideman: There’s no lead piano. There’s no polite comping going on. There’s no ’role’ being played.”
The band’s split personality is evident in the way King approaches the beats. For every feathering of the bass drum, there’s a stomping quarter-note; each cha-ching-ching ride cymbal pattern finds its straight-eighth counterpart on the hats. But this is less schizophrenia than it is the spirit of improvisational music, where King is every bit the composer that upright bassist Reid Anderson and pianist Ethan Iverson are. “I’m very interested in the idea of the drums having a personality within the band,” he says. “Coltrane would not have been the same without Elvin Jones. Stewart Copeland is a major part of the sound of the Police, there’s no denying it. John Bonham in Zeppelin … I still think there’s a huge part of Bonham in my playing. So I kind of wanted to do that within whatever music I was into.”
The notion of musical drums extends to King’s setup, a standard 4-piece bebop kit with an 18" kick tuned exceptionally high, higher even than his floor tom. “So what happens is my bass drum kind of plays almost melodic accents,” he explains. “Then my floor tom will come in kind of like earth shattering, and it has more of an effect that way, especially if I’m doing fills because I’ve got this giant tonal difference between my rack tom and my floor tom.”
Needless to say, Never Stop was recorded live, mostly in one take – two at the absolute max. It’s not so much a hard-and-fast rule as it is a belief that any more takes than that and the music starts to lose its urgency. “Then you really start to get diminished returns,” he says. “That’s another old jazz policy of some sort.”
Though The Bad Plus members all grew up together and played in bands back in Minneapolis, they went separate ways for almost a decade. While Iverson and Anderson plunged into Manhattan’s ill-defined Downtown scene that encompasses everything from Village Vanguard icons to Medeski Martin And Wood to enfant terribles of new-music John Zorn, King opted for the sunshine of Los Angeles where he did session work, played in crap bar bands, and even had his own project, Happy Apple. Gradually, the three friends noticed what the other was doing. Iverson would hit the West Coast for the weekend to do a show with Happy Apple; King would jet to New York for a handful of shows with Iverson and Anderson.
Around 2001 or so and in their early thirties, the newly mature musicians reunited as The Bad Plus. Their first record was on a tiny label in Spain followed by what King calls a “ghetto Euro tour.” After a few years and as many releases, they unexpectedly found themselves on a New York Times top ten list. “There was kind of a vibe that we came out of nowhere,” King says. “I’m like, what happened to the 14 years when I was eating macaroni and cheese every day?”
King doesn’t just love beats; he’s a rhythm renaissance man, a fact that’s obvious on recent solo release Indelicate, a project that “consumed two years of my life.”
The steadily intensifying plink of piano keys on “Homage: Young People” has a hypnotic effect; “Arts High Boogie” has an almost krautrock throb; by the time you get to “Bees,” featuring sampled beats played more like a keyboard than drums, all bets are off. At times it makes Never Stop seem pedestrian.
None of this should come as a surprise from the drummer who recorded Aphex Twin’s drum ’n’ bass blitzkrieg on a cover of the British DJ’s “Flim” track … on an acoustic kit. “We grew up listening to The Rockford Files theme at the same time as we were listening to The Cars,” King says. “I can’t pretend there’s some sort of purity in my jazz background. It’s not going to come out in the playing and it’s not going to come out in what we’re trying to do.”