Trying to Understand the Logic of The Bad Plus

Are they just covering the same old ground?

Six years after setting off an avalanche of publicity in both the mainstream and jazz press for essentially doing covers of popular rock tunes, so-called progressive jazz trio The Bad Plus is still hovering in much the same territory as when they first started attracting widespread acclaim. Though the group just released its first album with a vocalist, the strikingly innovative Minnesotan singer Wendy Lewis, its track listing--even the title itself--suggests that The Bad Plus has resigned itself to raising eyebrows for its choice of covers. Over time, the cover-tune aspect of the band has at best started to look more and more like a shtick wearing thin, and at worst like a calculated gimmick.Entitled For All I Care (a reference to a lyric from Nirvana's "Lithium," conveniently chosen as the album opener), the new disc consists entirely of other people's material. While the song selection does make for interesting juxtapositions—especially as it includes reinterpretations of pieces by the modern classical luminaries Stravinsky, Ligeti, and Babbitt—one has to wonder how much confidence the band has in its own compositions. All three members of The Bad Plus—pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson, and drummer David King—write music. And all of the band's five previous studio albums have been more heavily stacked with originals than with covers.So why then does it seem like The Bad Plus is milking the same old angle? Like a hitter facing a pitcher who throws the same curveball over and over, there's little challenge left for an audience of listeners who by now know what's coming. Besides the modern classical pieces and two slightly more left-of-center selections—Wilco's "Radio Cure" and the Yes classic "Long Distance Runaround"—too many of the songs on the new album reek of the obvious. Worse, they suggest the very language barrier between rock and jazz that The Bad Plus was being hailed for breaking down in the first place. How adventurous an outlook does it take to play Nirvana songs (two of the most popular ones, at that), and throw in Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb," the Bee Gees' "How Deep Is Your Love," and Heart's "Barracuda"? The answer: Not much—a truly "progressive" band should be making more daring moves.Iverson can be excused, as he wasn't familiar with rock when The Bad Plus first got together. But his bandmates, as he explains, have been well-versed in rock since their youth. If it'd be going too far to say that Nirvana's icon status has been overblown, it doesn't exactly constitute a bold artistic statement to pander to the legend. Other songs have benefited from The Bad Plus' trademark jazz-with-muscle makeovers: They've covered everyone from the Pixies, Aphex Twin, and Ornette Coleman to Burt Bacharach. But For All I Care marks the third time a Bad Plus album features a Nirvana cover."That's true," answers Iverson, "but it's only two songs. ["Smells Like Teen Spirit" appears on the first two Bad Plus albums. —Ed.] So over seven years of the life of the band, we've done two Nirvana songs. To me, that's not banging it into the ground. It's great music. I think the idea of that band and Kurt Cobain and the kind of supremely original emotional world that he created, that's something that resonates to everybody who is about our age—whether you like Nirvana or not. You deal with Kurt Cobain at some point even if you've never heard Nirvana. I can tell you this for a fact, because when Reid and Dave said 'What about playing "Smells Like Teen Spirit"?,' I was like 'I don't know what that is.' I checked it out and I immediately realized that, when I graduated high school, this is what everybody my age felt."Still, you can't get around the fact that the band picked Nirvana's two most obvious songs.To be fair, the band continues to strike a fine balance: Their covers contain fresh twists and tend to nail the spirit of the source material. Therein lies a great deal of the band's charm. For anyone, maintaining that balance is difficult, and for seven years now The Bad Plus has been fueling its career on its ability to do just that. On the other hand, for all the ballyhoo, Bad Plus covers aren't especially radical once you get past the new instrumentation. That's fine, too, even though some of the changes the band does make, such as trading in Chris Squire's rubbery bass work on the original "Long Distance Runaround" for a Latin swing groove, seem forced.Nonetheless, the song is buoyed, as always, by Iverson's floral piano chords, and receives an even greater lift from Lewis. As she does throughout the album, Lewis keeps her part faithful to the original, but has a way of amplifying the melancholy and yearning even though she makes only subtle changes to the original vocal parts. Side by side with King's heavy-handed, pounding style, Lewis' restraint conveys much more power. And she gives the band the emotionality it has always lacked.Iverson insists that the album title is meant to convey how much the music means to the band. "We care about all this music," he says. "That's also true of the classical music we play."As he has been saying from day one, playing popular songs of the day has always been tradition in jazz."For a fact," he says, "not as a matter of opinion, but for a fact, the reason Louis Armstrong played 'Stardust' and John Coltrane played 'My Favorite Things' was because they were tunes the audience would know. In classical music, Liszt, Chopin, Mozart, and Beethoven would take famous opera tunes, the tunes that everybody on the street knew, and write variations on them. Spiritually, there's no difference between that and Thelonious Monk playing 'Just a Gigolo.' And I think that, spiritually, there's no difference between that and us playing Nirvana."That's all well and good, but on their latest album, The Bad Plus has effectively relegated their own material to the background, which is a shame considering the band's compositional prowess. Anderson, King, and Iverson all possess distinct quirks in their writing styles, which should by now have come to be recognized as the band's primary identifying characteristic. According to Iverson, the band rehearsed with Lewis for about eight months. From those rehearsals, only one original tune will appear—as a bonus track on the vinyl pressing of For All I Care, which essentially telegraphs how important the band thinks the song is. Whether or not The Bad Plus would have succeeded in creating a supremely original emotional work with Lewis, there's little doubt that the results would have been interesting had they tried. One can only hope that live, they delve further into their own category of impressive originals, instead of relying mainly on covers. The good news is that Lewis is touring with the group. The grouping displays undeniable chemistry on the album, and it will be interesting to see them together onstage.feedback@seattleweekly.com

 
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