Anyone steeped in jazz history knows that the art form has always been a collaborative venture. Sure, there have been many outstanding individuals, but aside from a few renowned solo pianists — Art Tatum comes to mind — jazz performance is mostly done in the context of ensembles of one size or another.
Still, most of the ensembles are identified with their leaders or the group’s dominant musical personality: The Dave Brubeck, Quartet, The Oscar Peterson Trio, The Miles Davis Quintet — you get the picture.
But then there is The Bad Plus. Bassist Reid Anderson, pianist Ethan Iverson and drummer David King formed a trio that’s not molded by a single musical personality but instead represents their combined aspirations. Their music draws on classical, jazz, pop, rock, blues — you name it. Its members constitute a jazz trio, but they are something more — three gifted instrumentalists/composers in an impossible to pigeonhole ensemble, which has produced 11 albums and garnered legions of fans.
Into this troika of deeply committed artists and musical polyglots comes tenor saxophonist/composer Joshua Redman. “It’s been fun!” says the Harvard University graduate (social studies) and universally acclaimed instrumentalist, who will join The Bad Plus for an SCP Jazz Series concert Oct. 16. “The Bad Plus has been together for quite some time. And they’ve been one of the pre-eminent groups in jazz — three fantastic jazz musicians who have made this group their highest commitment.
“Going into it I was really excited to make music with them. It’s hard to imagine the Bad Plus as anything other than The Bad Plus. I figured we’d find a way to make it work. But I don’t think any of us expected it to work as well as it did. From beat one it felt right — it felt natural. For whatever reason there was chemistry right from the beginning. The more we play together, the deeper those connections become and the better the chemistry. More and more I feel that the four of us are starting to establish our identity as a group, as a foursome.”
For Redman, it may have been fun, but stepping into any ensemble that’s been going for so many years is not easy. Stepping into an ensemble that’s fluent in so many musical dialects is really demanding on the new guy.
“In terms of the actual music, it’s not easy to play, but one of the great things about The Bad Plus is that they are all skilled composers,” Redman says. “All of them write very demanding music but all of them write music that has tremendous clarity. These guys write music with a purpose. Their songs really have an identity and each has a message. Although their music is challenging and demanding, they’re not afraid of simplicity and being straightforward.
“On a certain level it’s not that difficult to learn the basic structures, whether it’s the melody or harmony or rhythms. Sometimes they’re dealing with very elemental musical building blocks, and you have to learn the basic motifs, the basic cells of the music. It’s not necessarily difficult on paper. The challenge, of course, is making it work, making music out of it, finding a way to be a fluent improviser and to be spontaneous in the music — to be expressive and to embrace surprise. The idea is to remain free and in the moment with the music but also to serve the music, to deliver its message.”
The collaborators recently released their first album simply titled “The Bad Plus Joshua Redman” (Nonesuch). The Guardian calls it “a must for Joshua Redman and Bad Plus fans alike.” NPR went even further, declaring, “It exhibits genuinely fresh thinking [yet] draws on a range of old ideas (as old as Chopin nocturnes and ’60s rock) as fuel for a journey into the murky, terrifying, thrilling unknown.”
The key to achieving this state was having all four write music for the collaboration. “When I started playing with them, we played exclusively music that they had written and recorded before in other contexts, so I was coming in and trying to find my voice within music that was within their existing repertoire,” Redman says. “When we decided to do the record, we felt it was important to develop some new music for the group, so everyone wrote new music, myself included. We’ve recorded two of my tunes, and one of them we play quite often [‘The Mending’]. ‘Friend or Foe’ is another one of mine.”
Redman, though, feels that the group has moved beyond the collaboration phase. “We’ve graduated from that, and now we’re in the commitment stage. I think the thing that struck me from the beginning playing with them was the complete commitment. At the moment the music starts, each of them is so fully present in the music and so fully committed to every aspect of the music at all times. I think that comes from the fact that it is a co-led group so that everyone is fully vested in it. To feel that care for the music — that total investment in the music from the very beginning is very powerful.”
Jack Zimmerman, a recovering trombonist, is a Chicago-based writer and novelist.