On its latest efforts, Inevitable Western and The Rite of Spring, a take on the Stravinsky composition, the Bad Plus, a heady jazz trio with a young, open-minded fanbase, shows off the breadth of its musical ability. The group has been together for a good 15 years now, but to hear drummer David King tell it, things didn't get off to a smooth start. Long-time friends who played together in high school, King and bassist Reid Anderson didn't initially gel with pianist Ethan Iverson when he first jammed with them in the summer of 1990 in Anderson's parents' basement.
"The three of us were young attitude-y jazz guys who had our distinct opinions on things," says King via phone from his Minneapolis home. "It didn't go very well as far as playing goes. We didn't even like Ethan very much. He was very precocious. He was 16 and knew everything."
King moved to Los Angeles and started a band. He says he had "forgotten about Ethan." But every time he went to play in New York, Anderson would bring Iverson to the gig and the two eventually became friends. They would jam again in 2000 and the results would be much different.
"I liked him a lot the second time and we hit it off musically," says King. "They wanted to do a committed band which is difficult to do in New York. In 2000, I joined them and we did a weekend trio and it was really strong. We knew there was something there, and we committed to making a record. We started to play concerts and it went from there."
The band's first album arrived in 2001 with much fanfare. The album included inventive takes on pop and rock tracks such as Abba's "Knowing Me, Knowing You" and Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit." The group initially turned to cover songs simply so that it would have enough material for live shows.
"When we were first putting the band together, we needed two sets," says King. "We didn't have that many originals. We didn't want top play standards. We all grew up playing standards but at what point do you go, 'This is a new band and we don't want to just be some guys who play the same old tunes.' We had always liked messing with rock music in a jazz format. We did that when we were younger. I wanted to try that. Ethan had no experience with rock music. Zero. He was literally in a bubble."
The guys started naming bands and recording that they thought Iverson would know. When they realized they had a blank slate on their hands, they thought that would work to their advantage.
"[Iverson] didn't even know who Nirvana was," says King. "We thought it could be interesting. We didn't want to approach it like a rock tune that we felt sentimental about so we would play some jazz chords to it. We wanted to be conceptual with it. We realized there was a concept there and we could put together some cool music we like from the rock canon and feed it through the machine of Ethan not knowing what it's going to be. It was obvious we weren't going to jazzify everything."
While King says the band has been criticized for playing too many covers, that's not why Columbia Records signed the group in 2002.
"When we got our deal with Columbia, it was because of our original music," he says. "They didn't hear 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' and think that they had to sign us. Sometimes, the over publicizing of the way we did these reinterpretations was overshadowing how much it's about having three composers. Our third record for Columbia only had one interpretation and that was of 'Chariots of Fire.' We had moved on from that original idea but [2014's] The Rite of Spring would satisfy that urge of ours to cover other music. At some point in time, we'll do that again but it's not our focus."
An album of nine original tunes, Inevitable Western opens with "I Hear You," a chill number that revolves around a somber piano melody.
"We were incorporating some old analog synths here and there," says King when asked about the group's approach on the disc. "We wanted to make a straight up all original record with no real frills. There's some electronic stuff at the end of my tune 'Adopted Highway.' Other than that, it's a quieter record even though there's some explosive stuff on it Every time we make a record, we try to balance the next record against it. They're like companions. We released it the same year as Rite of Spring. We didn't want that to be our sole statement. We knew we wouldn't be touring behind Rite of Spring. It ended up being this beautiful, easy record to make. It's warm and analog sounding."
"Gold Prisms Incorporated," one of three compositions that King contributes, has a prog rock feel to it as it offers up staggered time signature changes and goes for a something a bit louder than the album's other songs.
"I had been experimenting over the year with writing these improvisations that aren't necessarily big head harmonies," King says of the tune. "They're almost interval harmonies. There's an implied melody within it. I did that with this tune called 'Anthem for the Earnest' and then on another tune with a similar concept. I like experimenting with this form that has a key change or two but i's still this song. You can hear that something is going on melodically but it's indirect. It has this mid section that reminds me of the year and half of dealing with Rite of Spring. It has those Stravinksy overtones. We spent nine months learning to play Rite of Spring."
King's other two songs on the album are much different.
"'Epistolary Echoes' is a nimble jazz tune that has a fast head," he says. "It turns into this sixties Beach boys psychedelic melody. The melody returns and it's over these chords. It's played with a toy piano. I hear a strange Brian Wilson-y thing at the end and I thought it was an interesting way to end an avant garde piece. 'Adopted Highway' is an experimental piece. It's like soul blues. It's a cinematic thing. It's almost a Paris, Texas vibe or a photograph. It's a lonesome landscape piece but we play it like it's fractured blues."
Early on, the band was tagged as being the saviors for jazz. King bristles a bit when asked if he feels like the group has lived up to expectations.
"We never thought about ourselves in those terms," he says. "We never sat around thinking that we were stirring the flames. What we've done is commit to group music. We've been a band for 15 years. We could be considered the most working group in jazz history without a lineup change. The Keith Jarrett Trio has been around since the '80s but they play 8 concerts a year. We play 150 concerts a year. At this point in time, we think jazz should be committed ensemble music. You know that when you come to see Bad Plus, it's those three guys who play that way and it has an identity and you'll be a fan of the music. It's not anonymous. It takes more than that. To commit to it — that is a life commitment. If we believe in that, then we should do it at the highest level we can. That's what we contributed. We could care less about saving jazz."
The Bad Plus with with bobby Selvaggio Fourtet, 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 18, Music Box Supper Club, 1148 Main Ave, 216-242-1250, Tickets: $25 ADV, $28 DOS, musicboxcle.com