Primary Instrument: Band/orchestra
A billboard outside the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport advises travelers to report Suspicious Activity, a phrase which typifies the paranoid security-conscious society in which we're now living, says The Bad Plus bassist Reid Anderson. Struck by the advisory, drummer David King found in it the perfect title for the new Bad Plus album and the perfect metaphor for the group's new music.
There is a sound in the middle of the three of us that is The Bad Plus, says David. On Suspicious Activity?, the group's third album for Columbia Records, that sound moves and grows in fantastic new directions, testing limits of what an acoustic bass-piano-drums trio can accomplish and what genuinely new music can actually sound like.
Pianist Ethan Iverson observes, Our concept is far removed from the traditional roles of our instrumentation. The idea of 'piano-in-front-with-two-gentle-accompanists' is so completely foreign to what we do that it's simply…gone.
Suspicious Activity? is the first new Bad Plus studio album since the critically-acclaimed Give (released March 2004). In the meantime, the group has racked up some 250 performances on four continents, becoming one of the most telepathically tight and musically adventurous bands on the planet. Bringing its music to venues outside the traditional jazz concert circuit, The Bad Plus has drawn audiences from the realms of indie rock, techno and jam bands--the group's set at Bonnaroo being among one of the most buzzed-about events of the festival--and is on the front lines of an emerging new alternative music.
On Suspicious Activity?, The Bad Plus have again teamed up with Grammy-winning producer Tchad Blake, whose signature experimental sound has graced projects by Peter Gabriel, Pearl Jam, Suzanne Vega, Los Lobos, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello and Phish, as well as The Bad Plus's previous Columbia Records albums These Are The Vistas and Give. The new album was recorded live at Real World Studios in May 2005.
The Bad Plus is controversial in jazz circles, says Ethan, and one of the factors is the way the tones are recorded. We're not necessarily striving for the most natural tones possible; we're trying to get the best sounding record. We're a high impact band and Tchad gives us a high impact sound; he knows how to work the board to enhance our sound. I always wanted to play something new and it feels like I'm getting there with The Bad Plus.
Echoing the subversive quality of the music within, the cover art and inside booklet for Suspicious Activity? is by the acclaimed underground artist David Rees, perhaps best-known for his controversial comic strip Get Your War On.
All three members of The Bad Plus hail from the Midwest: Reid and David from Minnesota and Ethan from Wisconsin. The roots of the group date back to 1984 when Dave first heard Reid sing in a junior high rock band. Reid and Ethan met as aspiring young jazz musicians in 1989 and began playing together wherever and whenever they could. While 1990 marks Dave, Reid and Ethan's first musical encounter, the group's eponymous debut album was released in 2001 on Fresh Sound, a Spanish independent label. A 2002 performance at New York's Village Vanguard led to the group's signing with Columbia Records.
The group's major label debut, These Are The Vistas, was released in February 2003 with glowing reviews from traditional jazz outlets and more: (A bolt from the blue--galvanic, improbable, discrete, unforeseen… - JazzTimes); Bad to the bone, hot players with hard-rock hearts… - Rolling Stone); (…among the freshest-sounding albums of the year... - Newsweek).
The new album features ten musical incidents of suspicious activity including nine originals. Prehensile Dream, the album opener, is a composition of Reid Anderson's, penned pre-TBP. 'Prehensile Dream' is one of my favorites for sure, says Ethan, giving props to his musical comrade's composition. We chose it to open the album because it has such a prelude-like quality. We wrote out the sequence before we recorded the album, said Reid. The flow of the record was important and the details all mean something. The album next moves into a majestic David King composition, Anthem For The Earnest, which Reid praises as an overt nod to 80s pop music.
The third track, Ethan Iverson's composition Let Our Garden Grow, is a new school/old-school rhythm changes piece based on the form and harmonic content of George and Ira Gershwin's I Got Rhythm.
The intention of Dave King's The Empire Strikes Backwards is that of a political commentary. A jazz audience is a liberal audience, thank God, says Ethan, pointing out the fundamental relationship between improvisation and freedom as a possible explanation. 'Backwards' is difficult to play, Ethan admits, but I'm happy with the way it comes out.
The next three songs--Knows The Difference, Lost Of Love and Rhinoceros Is My Profession--are all Reid Anderson compositions. 'Knows The Difference,' says Reid, is abstract and yet it's a melody full of longing and joy. That's where I live, and I try to imbue my music with those qualities.
Ethan hears in Lost Of Love echoes of 60s pop production with a gorgeous melody and points out that it's the most produced cut on the record. (Suspicious Activity? is virtually free of overdubs, although there are touches, like the celeste in Lost Of Love, which add subtle coloration and ambience. There isn't anything we couldn't emulate live, says Dave, but there are some extra ear candy moments.)
I don't usually have images associated with my personal titles, but 'Rhinoceros is My Profession' is an exception, explains Reid, I like the image of being at a bullfight; the matador administers the coup de grace to the bull and as he basks in the adulation of the adoring crowd, the gate opens and a rhinoceros comes charging into the ring.
Ethan's composition, O.G. (Original Gentleman), was written in tribute to the legendary jazz drummer Elvin Jones. I wanted to write a requiem, Ethan offers, but it was too large an undertaking. The tune is about Elvin on tour stopping in a doughnut shop. 'O.G.' attempts to evoke the atmosphere in the shop after Elvin leaves.
If there's anything that justifies the title Suspicious Activity? says Ethan, it's covering 'Chariots Of Fire.' The album has our own music, which we're intensely proud of, and 'Chariots Of Fire,' as kind of an encore.
Suspicious Activity? closes with another Reid-penned piece, Forces, which Ethan calls a kind of lullaby. 'Forces' asks 'What are the forces that are tossing us around in life?,' Reid says. You make decisions and you say 'These are the things I believe in' and that in itself becomes a force that you harness. The thing about forces is that they're always bigger than you are. (Columbia Records, September 2005)
The Bad Plus albums
Discography at official Bad Plus website.
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