The holiday season is rife with age-old customs, but no tradition is without its beginning — and so it was almost exactly a decade ago in St. Louis. The origins of one relatively young holiday tradition trace back to 2006, the first year Jazz St. Louis hosted avant jazz ambassadors the Bad Plus. It has since become an annual rite, the kickoff to the nonprofit's music-education season.
This January 6 through 9, the exceptionally adventurous yet surprisingly digestible jazz piano trio — comprised of Ethan Iverson on piano, Reid Anderson on bass, and Dave King on drums — will play the Ferring Jazz Bistro (colloquially referred to simply as "the Bistro"). For Jazz at the Bistro, it's the tenth consecutive year hosting the Bad Plus in this new year's slot.
For the Bad Plus, however, the appearance at the Bistro is the final third of an annual three-week long holiday circuit. "We start in our first hometown, Minneapolis, with several nights at the Dakota — that's the Christmas gig — and then we move to our second hometown, New York, for our New Year's Eve gig at the Vanguard, and then we conclude the holiday stint with several nights at the Bistro in St. Louis," Iverson explains.
When asked about the band's decade-long relationship with Jazz St. Louis, Iverson is effusive. "I think that [artistic director] Bob [Bennett] and Gene [Dobbs Bradford, president and CEO] and the rest of the folks at Jazz St. Louis have done an incredible job of creating a community that's really interested in jazz," he says. "If there was something like Jazz St. Louis in every town in America the size of St. Louis, it would be really different for jazz musicians. There could be a much better touring circuit, which, there isn't too much left anymore."
In late 2014, the Bistro completed a $10 million expansion and renovation. The overhaul updated the original performance space and added a 75-seat lounge and jazz-education center, complete with soundproofed practice rooms and two rehearsal studios, one of which doubles as a recording studio. The renovation also added on-site office space for the Jazz St. Louis staff, who had previously been housed at the nearby Arts and Education Council building.
"It's great that they've redone the building. It's just really fabulous," Iverson says. "It's great. It feels like there's a real concert happening, and it also has the intimate qualities of a club."
He adds, chuckling: "And the food is a lot better, so that's also good."
Besides the group's evening performances at the Bistro, an important part of the Bad Plus' annual ritual is its engagement in a slew of educational events and peripheral performances, usually hosted by local high schools and universities. Iverson again credits the nonprofit, saying, "Jazz St. Louis as such good community outreach, and they set it up. They have the energy and interest to try to make jazz important to the community. Most places we play, there isn't that situation."
"St. Louis, of course, is a musical town," Iverson says when the conversation turns to the city's place in the wider context of jazz history.
"I remember, for example, I called [jazz bassist] Charlie Haden a couple years before he died and I said I was in St. Louis, and he said, 'Wendell Marshall!'"
Iverson elaborates, explaining that Marshall was the cousin of Jimmy Blanton, who had served as the original bassist for the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Marshall, he says, "ended up with Jimmy Blanton's bass, and it just shows how the roots of jazz are intertwined with St. Louis in all sorts of interesting ways. Jimmy Blanton was, in a way, the first truly great jazz bassist. He was from St. Louis and he died terribly young, and then his bass went in the family to Wendell Marshall, who was also an incredible jazz bassist."
Rather than seeing tradition and progress as antithetical, Iverson sees the two as complementary, a sort of artistic yin and yang that's essential to the world of jazz. "Anyone who's really serious about jazz is investigating the tradition and also looking to make new music," he says.
That frame of mind is exemplified by the Bad Plus' sound. While an initial impression of the trio's work may have more to do with the radical nature of their sometimes abrasive, rock-influenced sonics and complex, contemporary musical ideas, the group's reverence for tradition — both jazz and classical — shines through. Unfamiliar elements gradually come into focus as abstractions of more familiar ideas.
The concept also plays out in the band's repertoire, which includes jazz standards and not-so-standards like Rodgers and Hart's "My Funny Valentine" and Ornette Coleman's "Street Woman," alongside arrangements of classical pieces like Stravinsky's "Variation d'Apollon," and myriad late-twentieth and early-twenty-first century pop and rock songs, including David Bowie's "Life on Mars" and Wilco's "Radio Cure."
That yin and yang also underlies Iverson's response when he's asked what St. Louisans should expect from the group's upcoming appearance.
"The band's sound is really established at this point," he says. "There isn't really anything new except in the sense that we're always composing and we're always improvising.
"There's always some kind of new development in the music taking place, hopefully in an organic fashion."