Drummer Dave King listens with a seemingly perpetual smile, grin, smirk or guffaw, a flowing visage full of mirth and mischief. His limbs rove over and through his kit like a cat burglar miming slapstick, the beats issued forth like a terse tommy-gun, a pinball machine sheathed in silk, percussive phrases full of funky whispers and clarion shouts. He’s nearly as much fun to watch as he is to hear.
Audiences in the Twin Cities have been able to do plenty of both over the past quarter-century, as King, one of the most sought-after and globally renowned timekeepers in jazz, continues to make his native Minnesota a home base. Locals have come to expect that they will catch him with one of the two ensembles he cofounded that have helped define jazz in the 21st century — Happy Apple and The Bad Plus — or emerge in a new setting surrounded by other elite musical peers.
For example, King helped the phenomenal 12-string guitarist (and fellow Minnesotan) Leo Kottke refreshen his Thanksgiving tradition of local gigs last November with duet performanceDavs at the Dakota, an exchange that evolved into a tour and album together. This Sunday evening, King will play a free concert on the lawn outside the Walker Art Center with longtime cohort Chris Speed on sax and former Tortoise guitarist and jazz luminary Jeff Parker.
On Sept. 17, King will play two shows at the Dakota in his ongoing role as the drummer in the Julian Lage Trio alongside the guitarist Lage and bassist Jorge Roeder; they’ll perform songs from the trio’s past two Blue Note label releases. Last but not least, as they have for every year not besmirched by COVID since 2000, The Bad Plus will settle in during the week between Christmas and New Year’s for a residency at The Dakota. They will premiere a new album, due out in September. It is a momentous record, and tour: For the first time in their history, the ensemble has expanded from a trio to a quartet among their official members, dropping pianist Orrin Evans and adding Speed and guitarist Ben Monder.
Ironically, King left the Twin Cities to pursue his musical career as soon as he graduated high school. In a lengthy phone interview last week from Munich, Germany, where the Julian Lage Trio had played that night, he recounted the evolution from those hardscrabble early days.
His first stop was New York City, the “Mecca of jazz,” but at age 18, with little money and even fewer connections, he quickly felt overwhelmed. So he relocated to “mellower” Los Angeles, where he scrapped for a living for five years and was making headway when the 1994 earthquake spooked him. He thought about returning to New York, where Reid Anderson and Craig Taborn, classmates from Golden Valley, had begun to get a foothold, along with a transplant from Eau Claire he knew, Ethan Iverson. But by then he was married, and he and his wife Laura wanted to start a family. Initially, their return to the Twin Cities was a holding action, a pause while they figured out how to best proceed.
But then Happy Apple happened.
King met saxophonist Mike Lewis in 1996, and, a little later, bassist Erik Fratzke. The trio clicked as a free-wheeling entity that fused the exponential edginess of high-wire improvisation with rock-and-roll energy. Named after a Fisher-Price toy that King used to make percussive effects, Happy Apple created a buzz in small venues around the Twin Cities in the late ’90s. As King began to become enmeshed in the Twin Cities jazz scene, he discovered “world class” talent beyond his Happy Apple band members; folks like bassist Anthony Cox and guitarist Dean Granros. His affection for the area was further validated when Happy Apple became a buzzworthy band in New York as well.
“Plans for my career trajectory began to change. We had this band, and so we could stay (in the Twin Cities) and bomb New York from outside, and take Happy Apple on tour,” King said, the excitement of that realization creeping into his voice decades later. “In the end, we ended up inspiring Reid and Ethan. They came to see Happy Apple at The Stone or Tonic (two hip, adventurous NYC clubs) and thought, ‘Hmmm, having a band is where it’s at; we’re sick of having to change everybody all the time.’ I grew up with those guys, and they asked me, ‘Would you form a band with us?’
“That’s how The Bad Plus started. The thing about The Bad Plus being a Minneapolis band was erroneous. Those guys have never lived around here since high school, so you could say The Bad Plus is more New York-based. Happy Apple was the Minneapolis jazz group that kind of ‘made it.’”
The Bad Plus ignored genre, and was a commercial success by jazz standards
But The Bad Plus “made it” with a more sizable splash, mixing unique original compositions by all three members with inspired, jazz-infused covers of iconic songs ranging from Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” in a manner that was simultaneously audacious and accessible. A mesh of adventurous creativity and cool kitsch, The Bad Plus ignored genre, became influential to a new generation of musicians and, by jazz standards, was a commercial success.
King saw his dream scenario — being able to play the music he loved all over the world while being present to help raise a family — coming to fruition, and refused to compromise. “I decided that I would limit my time being away from my kids. If we were on tour for more than two weeks, my kids would come with and the band would pay for it. Credit to The Bad Plus for being so amazing and family-oriented; they agreed to it. And if it was less than two weeks on tour, I would be able to go home and spend time with them for at least two weeks.”
King also gives credit to his now ex-wife Laura (“we are still very close,” he emphasized), who flexed in order to make the unique arrangement work. Whenever possible, The Bad Plus would play multi-night engagements instead of constantly hopscotching from place to place on tour. This was how the tradition of playing the Jazz Showcase in New York during Christmas week and, later on, the Dakota to close out the year, came into being. “My kids grew up knowing New York. They would spend a week in Seattle, then maybe go to Europe. When they were younger they would sleep backstage — sometimes in the bass case,” King said with a laugh. “And later, they went to hip public schools in the Twin Cities (JJ Hill Montessori for elementary grades, and the OWL [Open World Learning] School for secondary school) that let them do their homework on the road. And at home, they grew up in a city that was diverse and cultural and affordable.”
Today, daughter Ella is 21 and working in environmental sciences after graduating from UMD. Son Otis is 17 and a senior at the Perpich Center for Arts Education and hopes to get into film acting and directing someday.
The Icehouse and more
Raising a family in the Twin Cities has enabled King to be a champion of the local music scene just by his pervasive presence. There have been grand events — in 2010, the Walker held a two-night celebration featuring more than a half-dozen bands he has led or co-led, and The Bad Plus were joined by saxophonist Joshua Redman to headline the 2012 Twin Cities Jazz Festival. But pay attention to the calendar and you’re just as likely to catch King at an intimate night spot like the Icehouse, or the Dunsmore Room at Crooners.
One night at the latter locale, King deployed his dry but aggressive humor for a set-long, between-song, repartee with his father, sitting at a nearby table in the supper club, over some grudge or rivalry that was almost certainly fictitious. It’s a tongue-in-cheek banter that fans of King’s radio show on The Current, “The King’s Speech” would recognize during its weekly episodes from 2015-20. The foil is cinematographer Joe Johnson, who also worked with King on video web series like “Rational Funk” (a spoof on instructional videos) and “Lights! Camera! Jackson!” with, to complete the circle, guest appearances from his King’s father.
“I’m proud to live in a place that at one time was the epicenter of American punk rock for a while and has been home to some of the best jazz musicians in the world in addition to people like Prince,” King said. “I’m proud to be able to bring in a group like Broken Shadows, which is me, Chris Speed, Reid and Tim Berne, who is one of the great musical geniuses of our time. We played the Icehouse and Branford Marsalis, who happened to be working with the Minnesota Orchestra and was in town, came down. He loves Broken Shadows and wrote the liner notes to our album. So there is Tim onstage and Branford in the audience who might sit in with us and everybody is hanging in this great club where everybody gets treated right. Brian Liebeck, who owns Icehouse, is a great friend, and I just couldn’t have been happier that night.”
Savoring the glass half-full
King also has kind words for Philip Bither, the Walker’s senior curator for the performing arts, citing him as a “great ally.” Bither asked King to do the performance on the lawn this Sunday after learning that he, Speed and Jeff Parker had played a couple of gigs in Los Angeles recently. It is an attractive lineup because in many respects, although he has relocated to LA, Parker has been an anodyne force in galvanizing an influential segment of the jazz scene in Chicago in the same way that King has used his leverage in the Twin Cities. And up until they ran into each other while teaching at Stanford University in 2018, they hadn’t played together.
Parker is 55, three years older than King, who confesses to feeling his age. He’s spent decades traveling the globe and, as part of The Bad Plus, dipping his musical hand into projects with Mark Morris’ modern dance troupe and Isaac Mizrahi’s runway shows and QVC theme music. He’s successfully balanced family life and a creative career on his own terms. And yet…
“Like any career, there is the romantic aspect of it and then there is the reality of it. The downside is that it is very hard, both physically and with the fatigue, and the older I get the more draining it can be. It can be very lonely and sometimes you just tell yourself to maintain.” And yet…
“I am in Munich and just played a great show with Julian and Jorge, two great musicians I admire. I am happy to receive that chance,” King said, savoring the glass half-full. “I want to keep evolving. I have an ear for what is possible, for what is needed and at the same time for what I could add that could shift the focus and make something new happen. That is because I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a very large and diverse swath of musical stylists.”
Hence the smile, the ongoing mirth and mischief. If you live in the Twin Cities, Dave King is coming to a venue near you in the very near future.