The Best Album from The Bad Plus

I’ve sometimes wondered how long The Bad Plus can keep up their high-concept mix of pop and punk covers, avant-classical harmonies, jazz cadences, kick-ass polyrhythms, and sly but un-ironic wit. Don’t get me wrong: I like their music a lot; each of the players (Ethan Iverson, piano; Reid Anderson, bass; David King, drums) crackles with brio and virtuosity; their interplay is a delight. Still, in the six years since they improbably crashed onto the scene, there have been times when their conceit has seemed to reach its limit.

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.

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Tony's picture

I suppose I'll have to check this one out--eventually. It struck me lately that I like their rock covers a lot, and their other stuff not so much. Occasionally, they get off a good ballad of their own, but overall their compositions don't knock me out.

Jason Stroud's picture

Beyond Jazz on the XM service played The Bad Plus on a regular basis. I made a point to pay attention when they came on.Now Beyond Jazz is no more, which is more than a shame. It's a crime.

Chris's picture

" Occasionally, they get off a good ballad of their own, but overall their compositions don't knock me out."Wow, I hold the complete opposition opinion. As good as this new disc is, the original compositions on "Prog" are even better. "Physical Cities," anyone?

Scott's picture

I have been a fan of Bad Plus for a long time and until this record, I did not like their covers much and would have preferred more space for their compositions... especially Reid Anderson's. Somehow with this new record, the covers really work and don't sound contrived. Maybe it's the fact that having vocals forced the band to be more subtle. But I do hope they do some originals again.

Rene Bouwmeester's picture

Hear, hear! In Europe, this record has been out a few months already, and being from the Netherlands I was able to attend their show in Brussels. An awe-inspiring experience, even though there were less than 50 people present. Kicking off with Strawinsky in trio setting, they followed up with 3 new songs (all great!) and ended the first part with Ligeti [sic!] and Milton Babbitt. With Wendy Lewis appearing on stage the recent pop covers followed suit - extended versions mostly, with ample room for improvisation. As if to broaden the eclectic spectrum even further, U2's New Years Day and Neil Youngs were added to the mix. Live, they're even more intense than on the record - glad I'll be able to see them in Amsterdam by the end of the month. :-)

derwyn Goodall's picture

In my experience, up until now, the band's music has not been available on vinyl. Well, imagine my surprise to find their latest in a bin of one of my favorite local vinyl haunts. It says it is a limited run of 500, and has a bunch of band signatures all over it in what appears to be silver marker. Can anyone vouch for this?I look forward to digging into this little nugget this weekend...

Peter DeHaas's picture

Great new album. Definitely a tad melancholy. Lewis' voice is haunting in some instances. I love Iverson's vocal harmonies. I was a bit miffed that the release was delayed in the states though I realize the European market is probably stronger for CD sales and touring these days. Having said that, I am happy to have the new release on vinyl. It is very old school heavy gauge vinyl. The album has the Bad Plus signature sound on it. I personally would like to hear more original compositions from the band. I realize the covers are fun and they hook people. I was smitten by Smells Like Teen Spirit when they released it on These Are Vistas. These guys are one of the hardest working acts in the business and one of my favorite bands. I guess what I am trying to say is that their original works, for me, are more compelling and (artistically) resonate with me more.

Peter DeHaas's picture

Correction, I meant Anderson's vocal harmonies. Dooh!

Dr.Strangelove's picture

In Europe: The Bad Plus had a gig in October last year in Bratislava, most of the repertoire was based on this record. Opposite to their show in Brussels (see Rene Bouwmeester post) with less than 50 people in audience, in Bratislava were aclaimed by more then 2000 people. The big stars of the evening were Mandy and Ethan. The dose of musicality and sarcasm were perfect!

Ali's picture
Butch Blawd's picture

Went to their CD release concert in Minneapolis and thourghly enjoyed Wendy Lewis. Need to get that CD.

ehehehe's picture

"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. " i am exactly opposite of this idea.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.

ILGIN's picture
yucel519's picture

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