They come at you with a big, bad bang on their major label debut, These Are The Vistas. A classic jazz piano trio set-up with an aesthetic equally rooted in rock, they rattled teeth from the opening moments on the album, playing fast and loud, with the propulsive and heavy ostinato of “Big Eater.” But it’s not all bashing and superior rock-style production, this is a jazz group, and these guys can really play. Ethan Iverson, Reid Anderson and Dave King have chops, interplay, they can improvise and they are absolutely playing jazz. It may be all straight eighth notes, but the music Miles Davis pioneered 40 years ago means that you don’t always have to swing. And the point of The Bad Plus is that they play like a rock band.
The rest of the record is continually surprising, exciting and satisfying, even after five years of listening. Their version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a rush of intensity and imaginative resetting. Yes, that is the Nirvana tune; jazz musicians have been playing pop tunes for decades, including Charlie Parker blowing “On A Slow Boat to China,” Sonny Rollins doing “Hooray for Hollywood,” early Miles doing show-tunes and latter Miles playing Cindy Lauper, Lester Bowie’s wonderful brass arrangements of Sade and Marilyn Manson, and Brad Mehldau spreading the word about Radiohead and Nick Drake to a jazz audience. There may be some shock to hear jazz versions of such contemporary music, but I imagine that’s how every generation hears it, with the inherent prejudice that the pop music of today is a poor version of the past. It ain’t necessarily so. I think it’s safe to say that the pop music of the 1930s-40s had a certain striving for wit and charm, but our times are different and call for different music. And wit and charm haven’t gone away, I’m just not sure jazz players will ever do much with Elvis Costello. Too many words, maybe. This is not a schtick, it’s a way to make great music out of tunes the players dig, and the band has plenty of great original material as well, like the lyrical “Everywhere You Turn,” which begins with an astonishing and beautiful fade-in. The band’s interplay tells me that, like all good music nerds, they grew up digging progressive rock – the proof comes later.
Their follow-up record was Give, and it’s even better in subtle ways. It’s more musical, more certain in it’s purpose, less needing to demonstrate that something can be done, a little more expressive. They play Ornette Coleman’s “Street Woman,” and lay into “Iron Man” to end. That last cut is enjoyable and impressive, but it has a faint quality of obligation about it, as if the band, having done a trick, must now repeat it every time since the audience expects it. That can be a bit of a danger. That suspicion was confirmed by Suspicious Activity, which is the same thing, just a bit stale, and a disappointing three-pack EP of all covers, “Immigrant Song,” “We Are The Champions” and “Human Behaviour.” The music is giving way to the schtick, and considering the talents involved these records are disappointing indeed. Prog is a better listen than the latter records, but the sense of surprise, the sense that the band will surprise the listener, is almost gone. Name-checking the pop tunes is a slender interest, though their selection of “Tom Sawyer” goes along way to confirm my previous claim. Hey, it’s called “Prog.” But much as the title pleases my inner prog-rock nerd, the result is actually a little disappointing. They clearly are not going to have the power of Neil Peart driving them, but they also seem to be lacking the own sense of force that was so welcome all the way back on These Are The Vistas.
So now, there’s a new record out, For All I Care, and it’s generally a immensely satisfying return to form – the band is moving forward by going back to their roots, so to speak. Despite the strength of the original material, there is none of it on the record, and that’s all right. The addition is the indy-rock singer Wendy Lewis, and this is essentially a vocal record (there are three marvelous, short interludes based on a Stravinsky theme from his ballet “Apollo.”) Lewis herself is a mixed bag. She steps back and forth from indy-rock affectless, meaning artistic fecklessness, to chesty rock belting, and so she varies both from song to song and moment to moment. It doesn’t matter so much, though, because this is not a case of the band accompanying her, but her accompanying the band. Her presence seems to have them concentrating on playing, rather than putting on a show, and the playing is excellent. The choice of songs is also a nice mix of the expected and surprising. Nirvana appears on the opening cut, with an inventive stop-start take on “Lithium,” which is followed by a soaring, lyrical version of “Comfortably Numb.” I have never had any personal interest in Pink Floyd, but this has an irresistible magnificence to it. Another band which I’ve never cared for makes an appearance by proxy here, the Wilco song “Radio Cure.” Again, this is totally satisfying, continuing the anthemic lyricism which is at the heart of the band, and the secret heart of progressive rock. Lewis shines here, expressive as opposed to Jeff Tweedy’s po-face vocal style.
Another highlight is a properly fulsome performance of “long Distance Runaround,” which is probably melting nerd-hears, young and old, across America. As a long-time love of Yes – there, I said it – it’s a treat. One thing this band does consistently is treat all the material they play with respect, they really love this music. The proof is a dreamy, reverential take on, of all things, the Bee Gees’ “How Deep is Your Love.” And I don’t think Sarah Palin will be playing this version of “Barracuda” at her rallies, because in this setting, as with the whole record, every word of the lyric is crystal clear, and Lewis really shines her – she sounds her best when she really opens up. She also is a natural for “Lock, Stock and Teardrops.” She has a style but is not a particularly strong singer (pop singers can do, or turn to jazz, it just takes a lot of work – Curtis Stigers has done this successfully), and she’s frequently exposed in the production, but her presence seems to be the focus that has the band back to it’s muscular, supple, surprising best. Let’s hope for continued badness.
UPDATE: Lest I unintentionally misinform my readers, the variations on this record are two different performances of Milton Babbit’s “Semi-Simple Variations” and a variation from “Apollo.”