The most surprising thing about the latest move by the Bad Plus is that, actually, it’s not very radical at all.
The progressive jazz trio — pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson, and drummer David King — has been most frequently cited over the years for its creative deconstruction of tunes by the likes of Nirvana and Blondie, or ambitious projects like its adaptation of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” The band performed that arrangement in concert at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art in 2013, and released an album version of the piece earlier this year.
But an ongoing collaboration with tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman, originally hatched as a one-time event, has borne fruit. The part-time quartet will play the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport on Thursday and the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center the next night.
“With Josh, what you’ve got are these magnificent, long tenor solos which are very much in the jazz tradition,” says Iverson, speaking by telephone from his home in Brooklyn. “In a way, that’s not our focus when we play as the Bad Plus — it’s important that whatever we do still sounds like the Bad Plus. But I think it’s fine for us to put on that garb and work with a virtuoso saxophonist, and enjoy that territory where it’s really more about blowing.”
Redman started working as a leader almost immediately after his arrival on the scene in the 1990s. He’s authored his own unexpected settings of songs from outside the jazz world, adapting tunes by Blonde Redhead and John Mayer on an album that also covers well-worn fare like “Lush Life” and “Stardust.” He’s experimented with a double-trio featuring two bassists and two drummers, sometimes alternating on sections of the same tune. But though he’s a notably dexterous musician and clearly a leader among horn players of his generation, Redman is not best known as a radical innovator. His style is derived from a more easily recognizable lineage than that of his current collaborators.
Despite the attention (and occasional skepticism) directed at the Bad Plus’s choice of cover material, the band’s musical signature is perhaps best recognized in its original compositions, thorny affairs that can find a way to be dense and supple at the same time. It’s not necessarily the most hospitable environment for a guest soloist.
“It does require a certain willingness on the participant to kind of come to our world, because we’re a very curated universe,” says Anderson, also by phone from Brooklyn. (Iverson and Anderson spoke the day after arriving back in the country from a European tour; Redman was on tour overseas and unavailable for comment.)
“We have our own kind of folkloric tribal language that we speak, and we don’t do ‘backing band,’” Anderson adds. “It’s very much, we play the way we play.”
The combo first came together in April 2011 for six nights of shows at the Blue Note in New York. The pairing was prompted, Iverson says, by the venue’s request for the Bad Plus to include a special guest as part of the club’s 30th anniversary programming. They’ve since played scattered gigs with Redman, including a 15-show European tour in 2012.
But after those initial New York shows, the quartet has played in the United States only twice more, most recently last year in Los Angeles. After the upcoming Massachusetts shows there are only two more stateside appearances currently announced, plus a one-off in Paris.
The repertoire so far has consisted of songs from the Bad Plus’s catalog. But all four musicians have written new music geared specifically for the quartet, which they are due to start working out together shortly before the upcoming dates. They’ll reconvene to record an album of new material after the short run of shows.
Iverson describes the new music as “beautifully complicated.” It includes the first counterpoint for piano and saxophone he’s written, he says, though he’s quick to add he has no idea if that piece will make the final cut. The new album seems to seal this collaboration as a creative unit on its own terms, not merely a band showcasing a featured soloist. Redman was billed as a special guest for their first shows together, but the group is now promoted as The Bad Plus Joshua Redman. (Say it with a pause after the second word.)
A game collaborator, Redman memorized his new partners’ songs after using sheet music for only the initial run of club dates. “That alone just starts to get you into another kind of performance head-space,” Anderson says, “and the music starts to become more organic because everyone is just hearing it instead of doing the math.” Meanwhile, Redman’s presence prompts the Bad Plus to find common ground with a more mainstream jazz sensibility.
“There are those that have been suspicious of the Bad Plus because of the reputation of Nirvana covers, or maybe making an album of ‘Rite of Spring’ with no improvisation whatsoever is also problematic for a traditional jazz-head,” Iverson says, “But with Josh, it becomes a sort of classic jazz quartet. So if anyone feels we have to prove ourselves in that way, it’s definitely more of a gateway into some of that than some of our other music or our other choices.”
The Bad Plus Joshua Redman
At: Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, next Friday night
Tickets: $29-$79. www.mahaiwe.org, 413-528-0100Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at email@example.com.