The Best Album from The Bad Plus
But the band’s new album, For All I Care (on Telarc’s Heads Up label), resolves the question: The Bad Plus, it’s now clear, can go on for as long as they want; their resourcefulness seems to be limitless.
This is their most ambitious, and most accomplished, album, the one that should persuade the final doubters that there’s serious—not brow-furrowed, in fact still quite playful, but in the best sense of the word serious—music going on here. The range of material is even more gasp-inducing than before—from Nirvana’s “Lithium,” Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” and Yes’ “Long Distance Runaround” to Stravinsky,’s “Variation d’Apollon,” Gyorgy Ligeti’s “Etude No. 8,” and Milton Babbitt’s “Semi-Simple Variations.” Iverson is, in fact, an expert and passionate interpreter of 20th-century classical piano music, and it’s exciting to hear him cut loose on these latter pieces. There’s always been a classical lilt to his playing. (After hearing the take on Stravinsky, put on “1972 Bronze Medalist” from their 2003 debut album, These Are the Vistas; the chords are very similar, and not by coincidence.) What’s astonishing, though, is how seamlessly Reid and King integrate their own styles into this sort of work. It doesn't sound remotely like the academicism of Third Stream or the condescension of “jazzing up the classics;” it sounds natural, as if, for instance, Babbitt wrote in a late-Coltrane sort of style.
In this sense, and more intensely than their earlier albums, For All I Care renews and broadens the discussion of just what is a “jazz standard.” In the 1930s and ‘40s, Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Parker transformed Broadway show tunes, the pop music of their day. Why should today's musicians restrict their alchemy to Gershwin and Kern? Why not expand the repertoire to Cobain, Jon Anderson, and the Brothers Gibb—if they prove the point in the process? (And speaking of the Bee-Gees, TBP’s rendition of “How Deep Is Your Love?” exudes a fine ghostly melancholy that spins the lyrics in more intriguing ways than you might have imagined possible.)
Ah yes, lyrics. This is also the first Bad Plus album to feature a singer—Wendy Lewis, who hails from the indie-rock scene in Minneapolis (where Reid and King grew up and where the latter still lives). I’d never heard of her, but I look forward to hearing much more. Her voice has an insouciant cool while managing to tap a song’s emotional depths. She reminds me a bit of Nico but with range and without the junkie chic.
This is also one of the few Bad Plus albums that aims for a more straight ahead sound, as opposed to the fanciful compression of many rock albums, and the effect is all to the good.