Last April, the long working band The Bad Plus announced a major personnel change, the first in its history. After 17 years, pianist Ethan Iverson would be leaving the band at the end of the year, the band announced. Drummer Dave King and bassist Reid Anderson would continue working and touring as the Bud Plus with Orrin Evans replacing Iverson at the piano chair. The band never stated exactly why Iverson was leaving, though coverage at the time suggested that tensions within the band had been growing for some time, driven in part, perhaps, by Iverson’s more active life outside of the band both in solo projects and as a budding critic and commentator on his website Do the Math (an extra-curricular that sometimes brings its own controversies, as it did this past year when Iverson published first an interview with pianist Robert Glasper, in which Glasper made some sexist comments, followed by a series of tactless and unfortunate follow ups attempting to defend himself from the backlash).
Iverson’s impending departure hung in the air over his last few months with the band. The New York Time’s review of their annual New Year’s Eve stint at the Village Vanguard – which this year were the last performances with Iverson at the piano – suggested a band that had ceased to inspire each other and a pianist “downright eager to get the job finished.” News of the souring band dynamic might also explain the Bad Plus’ previous album, 2016’s stilted album of covers It’s Hard. Perhaps The Bad Plus did need to make a change.
Whatever the proximate cause of Iverson’s departure, the change makes this a period of serious flux for the band. The Bad Plus has a unique sound that defies referents: they simply sound like the Bad Plus. While Reid Anderson and Dave King have long provided the lion’s share of the band’s compositions and seem to be the artistic leaders of the band, it was a little hard to imagine what exactly the band would sound like with someone else in the piano chair. Orrin Evans is a pianist of no mean talent and a forceful stylist in his own right, particularly as a member of his own trio, Tarbaby, with Nasheet Waits on the drums and bassist Eric Revis. Evans has a distinct voice as a musician and does not sound much like Iverson, so it was easy to wonder what the Bad Plus would sound like going forward.
With the release of Never Stop II, The Bad Plus’ first album with Evans at the piano, we finally learn that the Bad Plus will continue to sound like the Bad Plus, but a more energized version of the band and one finally opening up to the power of a strong soloist, something that, with a few exceptions, they’ve shied away from in the past. The album title recalls their previous 2010 album Never Stop, incidentally their first album comprised completely of original songs. The second volume also consists of original material, with four compositions from Anderson and two each from Evans and King.
From the very start, Never Stop II announces how much it intends to keep with tradition even as Evans brings his own feel to the band. The album opener, a composition of Reid’s called “Hurricane Birds”, is immediately recognizable as the Bad Plus, with those somber chords in the piano over an active bass and that sort of acoustic-drums-meets-electronic-music feel Dave King can bring. The last section of the composition prior to the piano solo sounds like it could have been lifted off any Iverson-era Bad Plus record, a fanfare of arpeggios and cleanly articulated chords. As the piano solo progresses, however, the music opens up in a way that’s new. Evans takes charge with strong, fluid runs and the bass and drums come alive behind him. For a long time fan of the band, the effect is at once reassuring and invigorating; don’t worry, the band seems to be saying, we’re still the same Bad Plus you know, just don’t get too comfortable, because we still have a few things to say.
Even as it tries new things the album frequently nods to previous Bad Plus outings, most overtly on Dave King’s composition “1983 Regional All Star”, clearly the latest in his series of compositions on athletic success. (Their album These Are the Vistas included “1972 Bronze Medalist” and Give included “1979 Semi-finalist”.) “1983 Regional All Star” certainly fits right into the series – it’s got that sly blocky rhythm in the piano’s left hand and the bass, and that wry melody in the right hand – though this turn is a little quieter than in past outings. While Prog’s “1980 World Champion” is rambunctious and jubilant, “1983 Regional All Star” is less energetic, more ironic and maybe even a little melancholy. King also contributes “Lean in the Archway”, one of the strongest pieces on the album, which starts off as a kinetic free piece for the first two minutes before giving way to an upbeat, Keith Jarrett like gospel vamp.
Evans’ own contributions also fit into the Bad Plus mold quite well, though in their way they are the least typical tracks on the album. “Boffadem” is a laid back post-bop affair – those big, rhythmic chords in the solo suggesting McCoy Tyner perhaps – given a Bad Plus spin with the inclusion of a toy piano which doubles the melody, a nice touch. Evans’ other composition is “Commitment” which manages to pack a series of episodes into its too short four minutes: it starts with a Brad Mehldau like opening which gives way to a freer, rollicking groove by way of a drum solo before ending up with something like a bass led lullaby. It gives the sense that Evans understands the sound the Bad Plus has cultivated over the nearly two decades but that he has no intentions of giving up his own sensibilities as a stylist, which is really the perfect sort of arrangement.
Never Stop II was recorded last September without too much practice for the new lineup and before the band had the opportunity to tour the material, but the result is still one of the tighter and more satisfying albums in the Bad Plus discography. Evans was clearly a natural fit for the band, which sounds more alive here than it has in a while. Four Stars