Covers uncovered

The Bad Plus plus a singer
By JON GARELICK  |  March 9, 2009

DISINTEGRATING: Lewis (here with Iverson, Anderson, and King) had her aha! moment when she realized that the Flaming Lips cover was “an ad for death!”

WFNX Jazz Brunch Top Five
1. Dr. Lonnie Smith, Rise Up! [Palmetto]
2. Madeline Peyroux, Bare Bones [Rounder]
3. The Bad Plus, For All I Care [Heads Up]
4. Marco Benevento, Me Not Me [Royal Potato Family]
5. Joe Zawinul, 75 [Heads Up]

Hear Jeff Turton interview the Bad Plus at beginning March 14.

Wendy gets Bad. By Jon Garelick.

"Beyond category" is what Duke Ellington called music he admired. He disliked the word "jazz." And, hey, don't we all want to exist beyond category? But everyone comes from somewhere, and so does music. No one is more aware of this than the Bad Plus, who'll be playing the Berklee Performance Center April 3. Beginning with their Columbia debut, These Are the Vistas (2003), they mixed whirligig originals with oddball covers by the likes of Nirvana and Blondie. Working in a traditional jazz format — acoustic piano trio — they didn't necessarily turn these covers into jazz. Unlike Brad Mehldau doing Radiohead, or Joshua Redman playing Dylan or Joni Mitchell, they weren't concerned with translating contemporary pop via jazz harmony or rhythm. When they played "Iron Man," they played "Iron Man."

Which is one reason I had always admired the trio but never loved them. Grunge-tattoo'd drummer Dave King was a mixed-meter demon, a master of precise, daunting rolls of clang and thwap with hard-rock muscle. Pianist Ethan Iverson — goateed, bald, bespectacled, in suit and tie — had a wealth of cross-genre skills in his fingertips, from fractured Paul Bley post-bop to Bach and beyond, plus a dry-humored delivery of between-song announcements. Bassist Reid Anderson was the indie-rocker type with the floppy 'do and the most ingratiating jazz style — a big warm tone, Charlie Haden–dark, rhythmically supple.

But their concoctions were all oil-and-water; there was never a sustained groove, hardly a jazz chord within earshot, and nothing to sink into, just their odd assemblages of pyrotechnic parts with a taste for rock bombast. In the midst of these frenetic originals, the covers came across as a joke: "Oh, hah, Neil Young — who knew!" It reminded me of the days when Steven Bernstein's Sex Mob quartet was messing with John Barry's James Bond themes — a chorus of "Goldfinger" followed by 10 minutes of split-reed Albert Ayler squall. I didn't get it. Or at least, I didn't connect with it.

The new For All I Care (Heads Up) is the trio's first album of all covers, and it takes them in opposite directions: they've added a singer (indie-rocker Wendy Lewis) as special guest, and, for the first time, the covers include classical as well as modern pop. So we get Pink Floyd, Yes, Wilco, and the Flaming Lips, but also Igor Stravinsky, Milton Babbitt, and György Ligeti. The classical pieces are perfect for the band. Ligeti's "Fém (Etude No. 8)" and Babbitt's "Semi-Simple Variations" (in two versions) are all spiky rhythms and mixed tonalities, perfectly turned miniatures that are bravura showpieces for the trio's ensemble dexterity. "Variation d'Apollon" (from Stravinsky's Apollon musagète ballet) lets the band get into their version of MJQ neo-Baroque-jazz fusion, with a touch of rock backbeat.

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Related: Review: The Bad Plus's For All I Care, A voice from on high, Neko Case | Middle Cyclone, More more >
  Topics: Jazz , Entertainment, Music, Nirvana (Musical Group),  More more >
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