When it swept onto the scene in 2001, The Bad Plus wasn't just cool; it was a bracing arctic blast from the Midwest, howling through the chinks and wilting the flowers of hothouse modern jazz.
Its 2003 breakthrough, "These Are the Vistas," featured unlikely pop songs such as Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and Blondie's "Heart of Glass," rendered with high intensity and improvisational élan.
Critical response was mostly ecstatic: "Can one album single-handedly make jazz relevant again?" Esquire magazine asked rhetorically. The answer, of course, was no, but it sure as hell can give the often prim piano trio format a swift kick in the rhythm section.
The prevailing model for piano/bass/drum interplay was set by Bill Evans' great 1961 trio: impressionistic, harmonically sophisticated and played with a polite, poetic, classical chamber-music sensibility. The Bad Plus doesn't do that, playing instead a more aggressive style that echoes rock power trios such as Cream, Led Zeppelin (three instruments and a vocalist) and, especially, Midwestern post-punk greats Hüsker Dü. The result is a hard-edged egalitarianism.
"We don't have that leader-centric sensibility," bassist Reid Anderson says. "That we are three equal players is important to the sound of the band. From the beginning there was a natural exchange of ideas, and after years of playing together, anyone can throw an idea out and have it responded to. We like to push each other around. It's very democratic."
Anderson shares writing responsibilities with pianist Evan Iverson and drummer David King. Over the course of a half-dozen CDs (including an authorized bootleg), the band has increasingly relied on its own material.
"We all write music, and [our material] has always been a mixture heavily weighted toward originals," Anderson says. "But the pop anthems are important as 'gateway songs' tunes that everybody is likely to recognize. They are great vehicles for understanding how we play, and it's a challenge to make each one our own."
The group's distinctive sound is immediately recognizable: a percussive piano attack colliding with sinuous bass lines and a storm of tumbling drum patterns. It's visceral and energizing, chock-full of emphatic ideas, even if gentleness and subtlety don't factor in.
"We explore the full dynamic range, and there is a lot of energy and intensity," Anderson says of their reputation as the world's loudest piano trio. "But we certainly do no ear damage due to the decibel level."
P.J. O'Rourke, eulogizing Hunter S. Thompson, said it was the fate of great artists to be bad influences. Whatever their other contributions, the members of Bad Plus have left a number of noisy imitators in their wake. But having created their own genre, their biggest worry may be sounding too much like themselves. According to Anderson, the band is leaving longtime producer Tchad Blake (Elvis Costello, Pearl Jam), whose experimental textures were a big part of the Plus' sonic mix.
"We produced the upcoming record ourselves," Anderson says. "We worked with veteran engineer Tony Platt [responsible for AC/DC's "Back in Black" and Bob Marley's "Catch a Fire"]. It sounds quite different. If anyone thinks they have pigeonholed us, they are in for a surprise."
For anyone who hasn't heard them, the surprise will be even bigger. S
The Bad Plus plays University of Richmond's Camp Concert Hall Monday, March 19, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $8-$30. 289-8980.