(reprints from old DTM; edited for style.)
The Bad Plus Plays Modernist Classical Music
In the liner notes to his first 1956 Blue Note LP, modernist classical music fan Herbie Nichols wrote: “Sometimes I burst into laughter when I think of what the future jazzists will be able to accomplish.” He goes on to cite Hector Villa-Lobos, Igor Stravinsky, Paul Hindemith, Dimitri Shostakovich, Walter Piston, and Béla Bartók as his own inspirations. I first read Nichols’s prediction as a teenager and began wondering then if I might be able to participate in this “future.”
Nichols didn’t need to wait very long: the very next year, jazz musicians Charles Mingus, Jimmy Giuffre, and George Russell joined modernist composers Milton Babbitt, Gunther Schuller, and Harold Shapero to release the Columbia LP Modern Jazz Concert. This mixture of advanced classical idioms with jazz was named Third Stream by Schuller, who quickly midwifed various recordings by John Lewis, Ornette Coleman, Jim Hall, Eric Dolphy, and others.
I like some of those records a lot, but the limitation of the Third Stream movement was actually foreshadowed by Nichols himself in those same liner notes: Nichols name-drops Stravinsky et al., but he is actually more passionate about how Denzil Best, Art Blakey, and Max Roach are dedicated to getting the drums to “sound” right for jazz. In stark contrast, none of the late 50’s/early 60’s Third Stream music interfaces with drummers on any level but that of a cool handshake. (Tellingly, the drummer on Modern Jazz Concert is Ted Sommer, and the drummer with Ornette and Dolphy on Jazz Abstractions is Sticks Evans. Both Sommer and Evans are unknowns compared to the company they are keeping.)
To be fair, serious drumming would have interfered with an understandable need to be careful with those first Third Stream charts. That’s problem A: how do you fit real, grooving drumming into the context of harmonically advanced and rhythmically disjunct modern classical music?
The next question is the one of improvising within the style. Bob Brookmeyer always correctly complains of this even in his big-band charts: “You write all this complicated music and then the soloist just plays his normal jazz licks.” And Brookmeyer’s music, while harmonically advanced, is still tonal jazz, not 12-tone or even really atonal. (Brookmeyer discusses this problem in Ben Ratliff’s latest, The Jazz Ear.)
That’s problem B: how do you bridge the gulf harmonically between really modernist classical music and what a normal jazz musician can improvise?
An important critical exploration of this topic is “Jazz and Classical Music” by Terry Teachout, in The Oxford Companion to Jazz. He concludes that the hybrids are usually more interesting than wildly successful, with the notable non-modernist exceptions of Gil Evans’s “concertos” for Miles Davis, based on Rodrigo and De Falla, for Sketches of Spain. I think Teachout is more or less right, at least as far as the modernist canon goes. (Jazz-classical blends like Donald Lambert’s version of Grieg’s “Anitra’s Dance,” Uri Caine’s Mahler, or any piece composed by John Lewis are in another, non-modernist category.) I have heard excellent Stravinsky and Webern performances by Dave Douglas and Bartók-inspired Richie Beirach improvisations, but neither Douglas nor Beirach – understandably – had grooving drums at the time. And without drums, is it something that a jazz musician would really want to play every day?
I hardly know all of the examples. One to be admired is saxophonist Patrick Zimmerli, who’s underrated 1990’s output as a composer featured 12-tone designs of an intricacy unrivaled in the history of improvised music. His piece “The Paw” won the first-ever Thelonious Monk composition competition, adjudicated by Herbie Hancock, in 1993. There was no question of Zimmerli playing with a house band: he had to fly his well-rehearsed group of Kevin Hays, Larry Grenadier, and fiery Tom Rainey down to play it. The record they made must come out someday.
When I worked with Zimmerli in the mid-90’s, he showed me the two-page “Semi-Simple Variations” of Milton Babbitt, which became our sign-off theme for a duo gig.
Fast forward: At the book release party for The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century by Alex Ross, I played pieces by Ives, Schoenberg, Bartók, Shostakovich, Webern, Gershwin, Jelly Roll Morton, and, yes, Milton Babbitt’s “Semi-Simple Variations.”
To get ready, I had to practice this repertoire furiously on the road with The Bad Plus. One day at soundcheck, Dave King started playing along to “Semi-Simple Variations.” It actually sounded, well, surprisingly, not so bad. Twelve-tone funk? Silly, of course… but not really so far from, say, Tim Berne’s world.
Reid Anderson joined us, and we played it some more. With bass added, it seemed totally legit.
Huh. Could we learn some others to include on For All We Care, our future record of covers with vocalist Wendy Lewis? Maybe if we added real drums, were careful about how much we improvised, and kept the dimensions modest we could contribute to the absorption of the modernist classical canon by jazz players.
Years ago, Reid’s answering machine featured the striking slow movement from Stravinsky’s Apollon Musagète. (After leaving messages for Reid a few times, I got the score and recording.) And what about my absolute modernist hero, György Ligeti? One of his piano etudes, “Fém,” is based on an advanced African Pygmy rhythm. How hard could that be to learn?
This is how we made the arrangements:
We love the melody of Stravinsky’s “Variation d’Apollo” so much that we wanted to play it twice as long as the original. And why bother improvising with such supreme beauty to enjoy for itself? We take arranging just as seriously as composing or improvising in TBP, and worked hard to elongate Stravinsky’s tune in an elegant way. (For the first half of the reprise we are in a different key, and get home via a Beethoven-esque transition.) At first we thought “Variation d’Apollo” would require the common “leaving the drums out in the cold” approach to classical music. However, one of TBP’s signature styles is an acoustic version of modern electronica, like when we play “Flim” by Aphex Twin. When we tried infusing “Variation d’Apollo” with our “homemade electronica” feel, it was a success.
“Fém” is an example of how György Ligeti combined the maniacal excess of Conlon Nancarrow and the rhythmic folklore of the Pygmies to make a new kind of piano etude. Reid and I have too much respect for the authenticity of Ligeti’s sophisticated atonal harmonic language to improvise on it. It is simply a feature for Dave, including unscripted drum breaks.
On one of our versions of Babbitt’s “Semi-Simple Variations,” we play it completely straight (it’s now on YouTube with lovely women dancing), but on the longer version we broke down and improvised a little bit. It sounds good, but sadly it is not in the twelve-tone language. Someday there will be musicians comfortable improvising together in the pure twelve-tone language, and on that day, somewhere, Herbie Nichols will be laughing.
The Making of
(written for Keyboard magazine) (2007)
The three of us share a common “tribal language.” Growing up, we drank the same economy-size Mountain Dew from SuperAmerica, saw the same bad movies on Channel Nine, heard the same great rock radio on KQRS, and learned about jazz from going to the Dakota Jazz Club in St. Paul. This Midwestern heritage is not as obviously deep as that of, say, New Orleans or Senegal, but it has its own twisted charm.
The first time TBP played together, we were not called The Bad Plus. We were just teenagers trying to play jazz standards in the living room of Reid’s family’s house in Golden Valley, Minnesota. Reid Anderson and David King had been best friends since the age of thirteen. I was younger by two years, and had met Reid when he went to college in Wisconsin. When Reid put us together in his mother’s house that day in 1990 – well, let’s just say the results were less than magical. We would have been shocked had you told us that fifteen years later we would be a full-time band!
After taking a decade to develop as players, the three of us came back together and played a gig in Minneapolis. It immediately felt special, so Dave came up with the name “The Bad Plus” (it doesn’t mean anything) and we booked some more gigs. Right after Christmas 2000 we went into a studio in Minneapolis for our first recording session. We set up, got sounds, and tracked the whole thing in about six hours while a blizzard raged outside. In true Midwestern style, our first step after recording our first CD was digging our cars out from under two feet of snow.
The Bad Plus was for a small Spanish label called Fresh Sound/New Talent. Next, we pressed a thousand copies of a live show in New York and called it Authorized Bootleg. These two small records had some impact, and led indirectly to the band’s being signed by Yves Beauvais to Sony/Columbia.
For These Are the Vistas, we went to Real World Studios in England (owned by Peter Gabriel) and worked with producer/engineer Tchad Blake. We were incredibly fortunate to have Tchad on board for our major label debut. He is one of the great indie engineers, whose signature sound has been a crucial element on important records by Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Los Lobos, Paul Simon, American Music Club, and many more. Tchad’s fearsome, funky production was one of the reasons These Are the Vistas got noticed in mainstream publications like Esquire. It was natural to record our next two records, Give and Suspicious Activity?, with Tchad, as well.
Unfortunately, Sony released Suspicious Activity? with an XCP rootkit that was potentially hazardous to PCs. Grimly, we put on our website, “Please do not buy Suspicious Activity? until there is a resolution to this problem by Sony.” Eventually, the old SA? discs were recalled and replaced by clean ones, but nevertheless the damage was done: What had been a sweet, unfussy roll on a major label had become a corporate nightmare. We asked to be off the label, and they quickly agreed.
We believe in paying attention to the universe when it sends something our way. While on tour in England, we played a great club in London called the Jazz Café. A mutual friend introduced us to the soft-spoken Tony Platt, who had produced and engineered some of the greatest-sounding records in history, including taping what some consider the definitive “overdriven rock guitar sonority” on AC/DC’s Back In Black. (Tony’s impressive resume also includes work with Bob Marley, Iron Maiden, Foreigner, Buddy Guy, Soweto Kinch, and Cheap Trick.) Tony said he had enjoyed the TBP gig and dug our records with Tchad, too. Of course, we immediately began scheming to pull Tony aboard for the next recording.
Where could we do it? Who would put it out? The clock was ticking.The music business is still geared to the somewhat antiquated concept of the “record cycle.” We needed a new album to tour on, and soon. In the end, we decided to finance the recording ourselves, with the plan to license it to a distributor.
Dave had just recorded an album with Mason Jennings at a Minnesota studio called Pachyderm. He thought it was a very fine studio with a good pedigree: Nirvana had recorded In Utero and P. J. Harvey Rid Of Me there. Also, since Pachyderm was located an hour south of the Twin Cities in a small town called Cannon Falls, Dave could just commute from his Minneapolis home. Not only that, but all of our homeboy Twin Cities hookups for gear could be accessed.
Gear… Keyboard requested plenty of gear talk for this article. Unfortunately, I just play the piano, and have never really owned a keyboard or synthesizer of any kind. (I do enjoy listening to Django Bates, Craig Taborn, and other jazz pianists play electric instruments.) So the only “gear” I really used for PROG was a 9-foot Steinway on loan from Schmitt Music in Minneapolis, where Ryan Walch was one of the important “homeboy gear hookups.” Ryan offered me a couple of wonderful pianos, and I picked the one that had the longest sustain. (If I were playing live, I would pick the loudest and brightest, but for a recording I look for the most resonance.) Thanks to Bill Sadler, the superb piano tech, as well.
Dave has an Ellis drum kit, Zildjian cymbals, Vic Firth sticks, and toys that jingle. The gong was borrowed. Reid has a Juzek bass from the 1930’s, and uses Eden amps. When we mixed at the Terrarium (another Minneapolis connection), they supplied a mellotron that Reid used to overdub eight bars on “Life on Mars?”…
…and that is basically it for “gear” that the musicians had tactile contact with for PROG. However, Tony Platt used plenty of gear. From his email:
The microphone list is as follows :
Kick drum Neumann U47 & AKG D112
Snr drum Neumann U64 & Shure SM57
Floor Tom Shure SM7
Rack toms Sennheiser MD421
O/Hs 2 x Neumann KM54
Ride AKG C451
Hats AKG C414
Drum Ambience 2 x Neumann M7
Bass acoustically Beyer M480, Neumann M49
Bass Amp Neumann U47 FET, AKG C414
Piano Lo Neumann U67
Piano Mid Neumann U67
Piano Hi Neumann U64
Main room Ambience 2 x B&K 4041
The recording console was a Neve 8068 and we tracked to ProTools HD at 96kHz/24bit
No EQ was used during recording and only a light compression was used on the Bass microphones using Universal Audio 1176.
The signal path was direct outs from the microphone amps into ProTools.
It is important to point out that this is not my ‘standard’ recording set up – I don’t have such a thing! This was a custom set up created to record you guys in that studio and was specifically intended to capture the band a naturally as possible. As you will remember we did try out some different combinations of microphones before settling on the final choice.
The other thing that is important was that we adjusted the microphone positions from song to song to take best advantage of the natural dynamics. We also adjusted the drum set up and tuning from song to song to ensure the natural blend of instruments was right.
TBP has made all if its records the same way: figure out the music on the bandstand, then go into a studio and tape it. Since we are improvising, we try to get the music in just a take or two. If you have to keep playing an improvised solo on the same song over and over again, you can begin feeling trapped in a cage. Rarely has TBP gone on to do four or five takes of a song, since we realize the law of diminishing returns kicks in after three. For some reason, almost everything on PROG is a second take. We would put one down, go in and listen, and realize we could do a little better.
If you have heard of TBP, you probably know that we play some covers. For PROG, we recorded “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears For Fears, “Tom Sawyer” by Rush, “This Guy’s In Love With You” by Burt Baccarach, and “Life on Mars?” by David Bowie. The iTunes exclusive, “NARC,” is by Interpol.
Playing covers helped us get some press in the early days. It also caused consternation in certain dusty corners of the jazz community that have little regard for rock. In other dusty corners, people think we are naughty jazz nerds poking fun at Blondie (we played “Heart of Glass” on These are the Vistas), Black Sabbath (“Iron Man” is on Give) or Rush (on the current album). The simple truth about TBP’s covers is this: we like playing these songs! We would play them even if they got no press at all, and we aren’t sending them up. After all, improvisers since the beginning of time have enjoyed taking apart famous music to see what new complex emotions can be found. Some of the freest playing on PROG occurs during “Life on Mars?”. The first take was kind of straight, almost banal. After listening and being somewhat disappointed, we made the second take wild and surreal. As soon as we finished, we knew we didn’t need any more takes.
While we love the covers, the three of us regard the original music as the real heart of the band. There are very few lead sheets and little other paper in TBP. Reid or Dave will show me the song at the piano, or I will play them one of mine, and we learn the music by rote. Once in while, I hand out a scrawl, or Reid gives me a notebook to look at for a minute. But we are careful to never play live with any sheet music, and there wasn’t any at the recording session, either.
One of the standout tracks on PROG is Reid’s song, “Physical Cities.” We take the word “prog” to just mean progressive, but of course it really comes from prog-rock. “Physical Cities” is in three different meters and two different tempos. We improvise on it a little bit, but it is really just fast organized mayhem, sort of like some classic prog-rock like King Crimson or Yes. At the end, there is a long unison single-note riff that is Reid’s interpretation of death metal.
Live, the one-note coda of “Physical Cities” has a lot of tension, but we were not sure how create that tension for a record. Different ideas were discussed — cutting a bit of it, recording the squeaking of our benches and stools, or overdubbing overdriven guitar — but we settled on having Reid overdub some arco bass noise not unlike some of the denser movements of György Ligeti (the composer Stanley Kubrick used for 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining). Even though it is just one note over and over, the spooky noise made the vamp riveting, if not downright chilling.
The majority of the songs, however, didn’t use any overdubs or tweaks at all. The great thing about working with a master engineer like Tony is how much he can pull out of a performance just by mix magic alone. For example, the side-stick (Dave’s left hand on the snare, rapping the metal edge) sounds so good on “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” that it helped us decide to lead off the album with that track. The blend between bass and drums on “Giant” is quite different than on “Tom Sawyer,” and this is how it should be. Jazz purists may feel that a trio should not have different set-ups for different songs, but it feels just right for TBP.
We tracked for three days and mixed for four. A month later, Reid flew to London to master it with Tony and Ray Staff at Alchemy Studios. Like on previous TBP releases, we art-directed the CD ourselves (mostly Dave’s work) and then were able to offer the complete package to Heads Up (for America) and Universal (for the rest of the world). They both accepted, and now the latest installment of TBP’s development is on shelves and online all over the globe.
A lot of tunes TBP had played live have never been recorded. But some tunes were “bonus” songs for iTunes and still available (at least in America).
These Are the Vistas “What Love is This?” (Iverson)
Give “Every Breath You Take” (The Police), “Knowing Me, Knowing You” (ABBA), “Stacks of Cash” (Iverson)
Suspicious Activity? “Human Behavior” (Björk), “We Are the Champions” (Queen), “Immigrant Song” (Led Zeppelin)
Prog “Narc” (Interpol)
There is also a version of “Karma Police” (Radiohead), which was a one-off for the tribute collection Exit Music.
We are proud of all these tracks, but “Every Breath You Take” was an arrangement we worked particularly hard on. One day circa 2002, Reid came over to my apartment in Brooklyn. (In those days we both lived on Union Street, five minutes from each other.) We knew we needed to change the bassline of this most famous of Police songs. How were we going to do it?
Our first thoughts were of a twelve-tone line or something else highly chromatic, but the rhythms were still hard to imagine. We finally hit on the idea of writing out a collection of little rhythmic figures and throwing them in a hat. The first two beats of our new bassline were going to be the first draw out of the hat, and we would keep drawing these “random” rhythms until the song was done. For the pitches, Reid and I took turns selecting a note. The basic rule was, “Try to select the least likely note.” We edited freely, but still, the three-chorus monster we came up with made no sense at all. It wasn’t easy for the bass — Reid had to practice — and for the piano it was sheer murder. I don’t think I’ve had to practice anything as hard in the TBP repertoire as learning how to co-ordinate the melody of “Every Breath You Take” with that goddamn bassline.
Tchad Blake was initially skeptical when we proposed recording it. He doesn’t like that song very much, and he wasn’t even that curious about our arrangement. However, he got interested as soon as he got involved, and his production on this song is superb, as usual. He even changed our arrangement slightly (something he hardly ever did). Live, we solemnly played three empty choruses of the original bassline before bringing in the tune/undersea monster. Tchad didn’t think that worked in the studio, so instead he treated just the drum track for two choruses before slowly crossfading the bassline in. Tchad owns these tones: you could play this track for any knowledgeable pop engineer in the world and they would say, “Tchad Blake” before four bars of drums had gone by.
We haven’t played this arrangement for a couple of years, and probably should do so again. Unfortunately, it’s been so long that Reid and I have completely forgotten the monster. Fortunately, the version on iTunes is as good as we ever played it.
(Unusually for DTM, all three TBP members vetted and contributed to the following essay.)
Just the Facts (2007)
TBP got a lot of press for PROG in the UK this past summer. A lot of the reviews were great, some of them were mixed, and there were a couple of solid drubbings. This is all normal, but a high percentage of the reviews seized on a “snarky” angle that mystifies us.
“Some think the joke is wearing a bit thin with the Bad Plus, the trio with a penchant for playing ‘ironic’ cover versions.” — Metro
“Once you’ve got past the jokey covers, it’s difficult to say what the point of this Minnesota piano trio is.” — The Independent on Sunday
“…A subversive US group whose jazz stylings seemed calculated to send up the genre…too clever by even more than half.” — Evening Standard
“…the musical jokes are wearing a bit thin…” — Mojo
“…Isn’t it time to put the clever-clogs stuff on hold for a bit? ….they risk being like that party bore with the flashing bow-tie and shouting, ‘I’m a laugh, I am.'” — Birmingham Post
“…their new album takes their approach further towards gleeful parody.” — Coventry Evening Telegraph
“…as much macabre burlesque as it is a piano trio…” — The Independent
“…tired of the group’s ironies…” — The Times
“…a slapstick version of E.S.T…” — Manchester Evening News
“There’s something awfully knowing about their arrangements…” — The Sunday Times
First off, before we begin, we just want to thank every writer that has praised or panned us. It is very hard for any improvising instrumental band to get press, period. We bear no ill-will toward any of the above critics.
However, these 10 quotes illustrate a basic misapprehension about the band, which is that we play the covers as a joke or in a non-serious way. This is not true. We are serious about all the music we play, the covers included.
They are NOT a joke.
Since Louis Armstrong, there has been a tradition of playing covers in jazz. Of course, they aren’t called “covers,” they are called “standards,” but the principle is exactly the same: you take some popular song of the day and improvise on it. (Before jazz, classical composers would make variations on famous opera arias. It’s too bad we don’t have a recording of Mozart, Beethoven, or Liszt improvising on the latest hit song at a party.)
In common parlance, “standards” are songs from Broadway, Tin Pan Alley, or Hollywood from about 1920 to 1965. This is a wonderful body of music created by high-level composers occasionally touched by real genius. When jazz musicians play a standard, they usually take the melody and a simplified harmonic sketch of the original and weave elaborate variations on its structure. This can be sublime and far greater than the original.
(But not always! At any mid-level jam session in the world, the band will immediately sound better playing something the horns HAVE to play accurately, like a bebop head, than on favorite session standards like “What Is This Thing Called Love,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” or (horror) “Have You Met Miss Jones.” Somehow the standards allow for limp and directionless noodling during the melody. This noodling is one of the major problems with amateur-level jazz playing. Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Gershwin, etc., are worthy of serious consideration, not just casual appropriation. Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett, and Sonny Rollins are three artists who can play the melody of a standard with casual improvised beauty, but despite the claim of the fake book at the top, it’s not that easy to do.)
With the rare exception, TBP doesn’t choose to improvise on music written from 1920 to 1965. Instead, we find it really interesting to search for ways to make rock, pop and electronica songs vehicles for contemporary improvisation. One reason that this material is not “standard” is that you can’t call “Iron Man” at a jam session and pull off a mediocre interpretation of it the way you can with “All the Things You Are.” There simply isn’t a common language for it.
But just because the non-original songs we play can’t be called at a jam session isn’t the reason ten English critics think it’s a joke. Why do they think it is a joke? There are two possible reasons:
A) The original music itself is a joke: in other words, Nirvana, Blondie, Aphex Twin, ABBA, Neil Young, The Police, David Bowie, Burt Bacharach, Tears for Fears, Black Sabbath, Pixies, Vangelis, Rush, Led Zeppelin, Queen, Radiohead, Björk, The Bee Gees, and Interpol are just inferior and not at the level of Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, and Hollywood. Implied is the phrase “rock is not worthy of the jazz tradition.”
B) The way we play the covers appears like parody, or at least highly ironic.
Both are wrong.
As far as A) goes, let’s compare the lyrics to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The Surrey With A Fringe on Top” (played by at least 10,000 jazz musicians, including a fantastic version by McCoy Tyner) with Bowie’s “Life on Mars.”
“The Surrey With a Fringe on Top”
Chicks and ducks and geese better scurry
When I take you out in the surrey
When I take you out in the surrey with the fringe on top
Watch the fringe and see how it flutters
When I drive them high steppin’ strutters
Nosey pokes will peek thru their shutters and their eyes will pop
The wheels are yeller, the upholstery’s brown
The dashboard’s genuine leather
With isinglass curtain’s you can roll right down in case there’s a change in the weather
Two bright sidelights winking and blinking
Ain’t no finer rig I’m a thinking
You can keep your rig if you thinking that I’d keer to swap
Fer that shiny surrey with the fringe on the top!
“Life on Mars?”
It’s a God awful small affair
To the girl with the mousy hair,
But her mummy is yelling, “No!”
And her daddy has told her to go,
But her friend is nowhere to be seen.
Now she walks through her sunken dream
To the seats with the clearest view
And she’s hooked to the silver screen,
But the film is sadd’ning bore
For she’s lived it ten times or more.
She could spit in the eyes of fools
As they ask her to focus on
Fighting in the dance hall.
Look at those cavemen go.
It’s the freakiest show.
Take a look at the lawman
Beating up the wrong guy.
Wonder if he’ll ever know
He’s in the best selling show.
Is there life on Mars?
We’re not claiming that all the rock songs we cover have lyrics as profound as Bowie’s, but we do declare the lyrics of ANY of our cover pieces more relevant to the current human condition than “Surrey With a Fringe on Top.” (Even apart from the lyrics, which is the better piece of music, “Surrey” or “Mars,” anyway?)
We love all the original versions of the music that we cover, and would rather listen to good rock than much of Broadway, Hollywood, and Tin Pan Alley. It’s also what we grew up with, and what still surrounds us every day. We believe that artists should utilize their life experience, not turn their back on it.
Next, B), irony/parody/joke.
It follows that if TBP loves these songs, we love playing them. As far as irony goes, let’s dismiss our versions of Nirvana, Bowie, Aphex Twin, and Pixies right now: there is nothing but respect in our reworkings of them. But at least three of our covers could generate confusion: “Tom Sawyer,” “Iron Man,” and “(Theme from) Chariots of Fire.” Until you hear us play those three pieces, it is fair to think we are being totally ironic.
Tom Sawyer. Rush is unsexy and Ayn Randian. (The lyrics to “Tom Sawyer” are an easy target.) But Rush is also feel-good music: when this song comes on the radio, even girls like it. And we respect Rush for creating a universe with their bare hands, carving out their Monstrous Math Rock from the granite quarries of Toronto. There is also an intimate connection between TBP and Rush, since Reid Anderson and Dave King bonded over them when they first met. Face it: whatever you dig at 13, you will dig for the rest of your life. (See also this post for more of Dave on Neil Peart.)
Iron Man. OK, this is a pretty weird choice: Science fiction lyrics (He was turned to steel/In the great magnetic field/Where he traveled time/For the future of mankind) and the original Birmingham headbangers. Look, though, that is a powerful riff. When we kick this song, we AREN’T JOKING. We really try to bring the doom with just our poor little acoustic instruments. Our earnestness was rewarded with the ultimate compliment: Geezer Butler put our “Iron Man” on the Black Sabbath iTunes “celebrity playlist” with the comment, “Has to be the most original cover version of any song ever! Saw them at the Knitting Factory in L.A. — mind-blowing!”
(Theme from) Chariots of Fire. Choosing to play this song is unquestionably ironic, especially if you check out Vangelis’ original video, one of the corniest things ever made. But there is more than meets the eye here. First of all, this was one of Ethan’s showpieces when he was 11. He loved it then and he loves it now. Also, it IS really a good tune. Soho the Dog wrote about it:
“If you’re a really honest composer, then you know that the question isn’t so much whether or not you’d give up a body part to write an earworm as indelible as the theme from Chariots of Fire, but rather, how many, and which ones.”
Finally, our exploration of “Chariots” is an embrace of grand drama to express complex emotions. After the blackest, most dissonant free jazz we can play, the tune rises at the end in a mighty crescendo. The feeling is “WE CAN WIN!” There is no irony in this feeling. It’s one of those moments where you can put a lot of people together on the same page: We remember an outdoor performance of “Chariots” in Prospect Park for several thousand people that went particularly well. The massive roar of the crowd afterward was not “that was a successful snark, guys!” but one of pure joy.
Irony — and its allies: surrealism, sardonicism, and dementia — do occasionally play roles in our music, just as it does in the work of many artists we admire. Consider some famous performances of jazz standards: What is more ironic than Thelonious Monk’s “Just a Gigolo?” What is more surreal than Duke Ellington’s trio version of “Summertime?” What is more sardonic than Charlie Parker’s quote of “Country Gardens” at the end of many ballads? And what is more demented than Django Bates’ “New York, New York?”
But just like with those artists, irony is just a small part of the story in The Bad Plus. Here’s our real story: We love songs. We believe in the power of song. We write songs as well as we can. There is not anything in TBP’s repertory that is not based on melody, originals included. Thinking that we are not serious about the melodies we play is incorrect.
Once, a very straight-ahead jazz player came up to us after a gig and said, “You know, I’m surprised! ‘Heart of Glass’ is actually a good song!” Hell yeah it is.
The Business of Jazz (2007)
Excerpts from Tony Pistilli’s recent email:
I am a student at a local private high school. I’ve grown to absolutely love Happy Apple, and I figured any group Dave was in was worth listening to, so I checked out Suspicious Activity? from the library. It was absolutely amazing, which I proceeded to tell every somewhat musically inclined friend…
I began reading your blog about a month ago. My eyes were opened as to how much there was on the internet to learn about jazz…
I put your music blogs in my favorites and print off the larger articles (no sense staring at a screen for an hour reading). Today I came across stories concerning intermixing genres, an article about promoting classical music to youth etc., and a story about a violinist playing in a subway. Last night there was the demise of record stores. The sense I’ve gotten in my short blog reading experience is that jazz (and classical) musicians are slightly bitter.
Jazz is unpopular with the masses, I would say. I played an original arrangement (basically Fm7, Eb7, Bbm7/Db, Cm7 to a bossa beat… nothing fancy) at my school’s talent show. It was just a piano, bass and drums and as we were playing, people were sitting there as if they were wondering what we were doing… if we were serious… Afterwards, my dad told me that he liked music that he has heard before, and suggested that I play “In The Mood” at the next concert. The whole thing was discouraging.
My mom told me that John Coltrane was playing “My Favorite Things” wrong on the One Up, One Down CD. I don’t know if she is best described as ignorant or as holding public opinion.
And in all of this I wonder, why do people play jazz for a living? Like I say, I love jazz and music in general. I play both saxophone and piano, and… well, I’m into music, simply said. And yet I am faced with the “realities of life”, as it has been told to me. I need to have a place to live, I need to eat etc., and while people do this as jazz musicians the business doesn’t seem in their favor.
So all of this leads up to (hopefully I wasn’t too wordy) this question: Why are you guys jazz musicians? And what advice do you have for somebody who would want to be one of those making a living from jazz? Did you ever find yourself working another job to make money? I’m just interested in how one goes from me, this guy who practices the ii-V-I licks he is given at his MacPhail lesson, to making a living at it like you do in The Bad Plus.
Reading this email reminded me of when I was a teenager myself. Tony said it was fine if I answered him on the blog.
Thanks for the supportive email. It’s always nice to hear that someone enjoys our music.
You asked, “Why do people play jazz for a living?” Well, Tony, it is certainly not for the money. There is no other way to put this: it is very hard to have a career in creative music. All of us in the band have had MANY other jobs. In fact, almost every musician I know has had to do other work to pay the bills. Some of us like to have non-music jobs (to keep the creative work entirely separate) but most of us play gigs that aren’t jazz. Although I moved to New York in 1991, I hardly played a jazz gig until about 2000. Instead, I played for comedy sports, in a tango band, for musical theatre rehearsals, for dance classes, and was the music director for a modern dance company.
The public at large will probably never be the least bit interested or impressed with One Up, One Down. That’s their loss, since it’s the only recording of the classic Coltrane quartet in a club from 1965 (their last year together). If you understand this band’s language, it is an astounding document.
Check this out: I can guarantee all four members of the Coltrane quartet were making no more than 50 dollars a man per night at the Half Note, where One Up, One Down was recorded. Furthermore, the legend is that McCoy Tyner went to work as a cabbie for a while AFTER playing with John Coltrane. You might say, “Well, gee, that was forty years ago. Isn’t it better now?” Actually, right at this moment New York City is going through kind of a rough time for jazz. Some of the best jazz musicians on the planet have been playing for tips at the Tea Lounge in Brooklyn, probably making less than 50 dollars a night.
In a way, having some difficulty in making a living can be a kind of asset, keeping what you do honest and sincere. When financial success is possible, there is a real danger that money will become more important than truth. Jazz doesn’t need to worry about this trap like TV or radio pop does. Also, scuffling for money can enable a kind of soulful “grit” to enter a musician’s playing. I can’t say that being rich is an impediment to playing jazz, exactly… but it certainly doesn’t help.
One thing that I must clarify is your perception that many musicians are bitter, though. I don’t think any of us would trade playing music for having a well-paid job, since music is just so wonderful. We all like to complain, but few are truly bitter.
As far as what you should do now, I have a few obvious suggestions.
1) Listen to the music incessantly (I’m sure you are already doing this). Jazz used to come from a certain social environment which has been gone a long time. The only thing young musicians can do now is immerse themselves in listening. Also, see the music live whenever you can.
2) Try to meet and play informally with many other musicians, without worrying about getting paid for at least ten or fifteen years.
3) You mention practicing II/V/I licks–that’s ok, sure. But you can practice anything you want. Look for the material that excites you the most, and practice that. It could even be material that has little to do with regular jazz, but if you like it, work on it. For example, both Reid and I have studied classical music and Dave different types of Latin music. If you love rock, play that, too. We are getting rid of boxes in the postmodern age.
4) You are probably thinking about music school and so forth for college. That’s great. For me, it was both good and bad. While I was exposed to serious classical music for the first time (a priceless experience), I did drop out after two years… and after over a decade of monthly installments at the lowest amount/highest interest rate possible, I finally paid off my college student loan (New York University, 1991-1993) in late 2006. Citibank Student Loan Corporation was smart to invest in me. They got at least four times as much back.
Tony, the fact you are having trouble playing jazz in high school is not surprising. It is, in fact, normal. That your parents know nothing about the music is normal, too. Please keep at it with joy in your heart, and don’t start playing “In the Mood” unless you want to.