When speaking to the New York Times a year ago regarding a major personnel shift within the ranks of The Bad Plus, bassist Reid Anderson came up with a job qualification he felt was adequately met by incoming pianist Orrin Evans.
Anderson said the new recruit possessed “the right irrationality quotient.”
“Well, yeah,” reaffirmed Anderson by phone last week. “Orrin is a fellow weirdo. It’s kind of a job requirement for being in The Bad Plus.”
The Minneapolis-rooted jazz troupe, which performs at the Lexington Children’s Theatre on Dec. 9 as part of the Origins Jazz Series, has flipped the sound, as well as the repertoire, of the conventional piano trio on its ear with playing that covers a broad range of jazz traditions while remaining open to areas of more fractured improvisation. Fueling that sense of adventure has been 18 years worth of cunning original tunes augmented by a penchant for interpreting everything from Stravinsky to Black Sabbath.
But at the dawn of 2018, The Bad Plus stood at a crossroads. Its founding pianist, Ethan Iverson was exiting the band, forcing the first ever change in the band’s roster. But the split wasn’t immediate. Iverson gave notice over a year ahead of his actual departure, allowing Anderson and drummer Dave King ample time to find a replacement. They didn’t need it. Anderson immediately turned to Evans, a longtime friend.
“He was the only choice,” the bassist said. “We didn’t consider anybody else. We didn’t ask anybody else or audition anyone. Orrin was the guy. Dave and I had discussed it and he was just an obvious choice for us.”
The curious design of the transition meant Anderson and King continued to tour with Iverson in 2017 up through a New Year’s Eve weekend engagement at New York’s famed Village Vanguard. Between the performance commitments, though, the two began recording with Evans. As such, a mere week after Iverson’s last gig with the band, the first recording by the new Bad Plus lineup was released. Titled “Never Stop II,” it references the original trio’s 2010 album “Never Stop,” the first Bad Plus album devoted exclusively to original compositions. The new record follows the same game plan.
“First of all, everything was very natural from the moment Dave and I started playing with Orrin,” Anderson said. “Just the first few rehearsals of introducing him to the new music and playing it with him felt very organic, easy and natural. But we didn’t do a lot of playing with him. We didn’t have the opportunity, based on the circumstances. In fact, the record is basically a document of us kind of performing that music for the very first time. It was more a matter of just understanding the structures of the tunes and so forth. I think it’s also a testament to what a great fit Orrin is for the band.”
The sound of the new Bad Plus may seem familiar to longtime fans during the two Anderson tunes, “Hurricane Birds” and “Trace,” that open “Never Stop II.” The grooves are lean, pronounced but playfully flexible. The difference is the noticeable warmth in Evans’ playing that provides a reflective, almost pastoral, feel to the music.
“I think Orrin brings a rhythmic joyfulness to the music,” Anderson said. “There is a kind of freedom to the improvisations that wasn’t quite there before. Things tend to go in different directions more than they would in the past.”
But what of Anderson’s ongoing working partnership with King? Of that, the bassist points to the band’s democratic spirit, which the two adhere to far more than the designs and demands of a conventional rhythm section.
“Dave and I go way back. We’re more than family at this point. We’ve known each other since we were 15 years old. But The Bad Plus has always been structured as a truly cooperative organization. We don’t just see ourselves as a rhythm section. We see each other as composers and conceptualists.
“The band is kind of an art project in that sense. In addition to really striving to be a great rhythm section, we try to combine each of our roles in the music. In The Bad Plus, those roles can get turned on their head a little bit, too. Sometimes we look for different ways we can use our instrumentation that doesn’t necessarily conform to what is expected. Sometimes, it might be the piano and bass accompanying the drums more or vice versa. People can take control in different ways. I think all of those elements come together in terms of how we develop as a rhythm section. We’re kind of musical partners in crime.”