Early last April, Orrin Evans stopped by my table at the Broad Street jazz club South to deliver some news: "I've joined the Bad Plus."
It was a simple announcement, but one that I was slow to comprehend. Joining the Bad Plus wasn't an option. The trio was a rarity in the jazz world, an actual band whose membership had remained consistent since they'd initially come together more than 15 years earlier. Not only had they never replaced a member, they'd never even used a sub for a single performance. The Bad Plus was synonymous with its membership: pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson, and drummer Dave King.
But it was true: Iverson was leaving, and Philly's own Evans was the first — in the band's telling, only — choice for a replacement. "Orrin is a virtuosic musician," Anderson says, "but he has an outsider energy to the things that he does. That's part of the job description for being in the Bad Plus. We all have a bit of a weirdo energy and a twist on the way we look at music. There isn't a specific set of criteria for someone to be in the Bad Plus; you just have to be open-minded and creative and we'll build it from there."
Nearly a year after the news broke, the revamped Bad Plus will arrive at South on Monday and Tuesday for their first shows in their new pianist's hometown. The two-night stint comes on the heels of their stellar new album, Never Stop II, which finds the trio jolted into a newfound urgency by the shake-up.
That title feels something like a movie sequel where one of the main characters has been recast, a cheeky acknowledgment of the lineup change in keeping with the band's penchant for dry humor. Known for their playful reworkings of rock tunes – their cover of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" put them on the map, while subsequent albums have featured tunes by David Bowie, the Pixies, Black Sabbath, and others – the trio released their first all-original album, Never Stop, in 2010. The new album follows in the same mold, with new pieces contributed by all three members, but also makes a sideways reference to their commitment to continuing in this new form.
"There's a kind of playfulness there," Anderson admits, "but it's also a declaration of purpose."
After nearly a year of speculation, Never Stop II offers an album that sounds absolutely like the Bad Plus – but also sounds absolutely like Orrin Evans. Given the strong identities represented by both, that might seem obvious; but the combination of such distinctive voices could just as easily clash as meld. "It was really organic," Anderson says. "I can't remember a point when there was any sense of struggle or even a conscious thought process about how we would fit things together. I think that speaks to Orrin's abilities: He's coming into this situation where there's a strong precedent, but he has such a personal voice that he's going to sound like Orrin Evans no matter what. But Dave and I are very much in possession of what makes the Bad Plus tick. We've created this space for us to really be ourselves and invited Orrin in to be himself."
Evans puts his own typically brash slant on the same sentiment. "It's like sex," he says with a laugh. "It works or it doesn't, but you only find out once you try. You have to check out everybody's facial expressions to know whether they like it or not so you know what to do. As long as I'm listening and observing, it works out."
The relationship is not a totally new one; Evans and Anderson have been close friends for 25 years, since Anderson arrived in Philly to study at the Curtis Institute during the pianist's high school days. Even so, Never Stop II was a dive into the deep end, recorded without the trio ever having played a gig together and in the middle of the original band's farewell tour, which ended in late December at New York City's iconic Village Vanguard.
"We're taking this whole excursion like kamikaze pilots," Evans says. "It's been nerve-racking for me. We met in front of everybody, we're getting to get to know each other in front of everybody, and now we've got to heal in front of everybody."
That final step is an acknowledgment that the end of the Bad Plus as we knew it was a fairly acrimonious one. The healing process is one that Anderson says has already begun in the new trio's first few outings onstage. "It's been a lot of fun, which is not the way I would normally describe being out on the road with the Bad Plus," he says.
"A certain amount of cynicism has been removed, and that's a really good feeling. There's an open spirit and a positive energy now, and it's been palpable in the response of audiences that we've played for thus far. You can feel the genuine excitement in the room."