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Published: 2009/02/03
by Brian Ferdman

For All I Care – The Bad Plus

Heads Up International

For the last few years, the Midwestern piano trio The Bad Plus has made a name for themselves by boldly reinventing pop songs. Setting works by Black Sabbath, Radiohead, and Nirvana, among others, within a jazz context has earned The Bad Plus many fans, and their latest album, For All I Care, takes the process one step further. With vocalist Wendy Lewis in tow, the group leaves behind its original compositions and focuses entirely on covers, including pop, rock, and even some avant-garde classical works.

To her credit, Lewis does a fantastic job of fusing herself into this band. Instead of making this the Wendy Lewis Show with The Bad Plus or The Bad Plus featuring Special Guest Wendy Lewis, she easily becomes a fourth member of the group. This smooth integration is partly the result of her simple, non-descript voice, but it’s also attributable to her much appreciated desire to serve the songs, rather than using the songs as vehicles to gain attention. To be perfectly honest, the entire band seems to be completely fixated on serving this material, and by stripping the songs down and then building them back up in a jazz context, they often succeed in providing a new layer of subtext for these works.

That’s certainly the case with Nirvana’s “Lithium,” which adds in some odd time signatures, causing a slight lag behind the beat that later combines with the alternating explosions of Ethan Iverson’s discordant piano and the lush, soothing grooves of Reid Anderson’s bass to create an off-kilter feeling that is synonymous with those who need the mood-altering drug. This is one remarkable achievement, and I don’t hesitate to say that The Bad Plus ooze way more substance out of this song than Nirvana ever did.

The same is also true of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.” Drummer David King begins by gently brushing out a subtly swinging military cadence while Lewis delivers her vocal in a near comatose fashion. When the song shifts to the traditional David Gilmour-led “There is no pain, you are receding” section, a dreamlike haze is created by King’s cymbal rides, Anderson’s bouncy lines, and Iverson’s ethereal arpeggios. After shifting back to the darkness of “Okay, just a little pin prick,” The Bad Plus choose to skip the horrifying scream and opt for a few harrowing seconds of silence, which pulls you in close and leaves you on the edge of your seat. Once again, we wash into the hazy arpeggios, and everything builds to a wrenching climax as Iverson shifts into several different keys and threatens to spin off his axis before resolving into the numb finale of a truly powerful number. Make no bones about it, The Bad Plus’ interpretation of this classic is nothing short of brilliant.

The charts on this album also push the songs to extremes, as Wilco’s “Radio Cure” gets both darker and a bit more hopeful, while The Flaming Lips’ “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate” becomes a more lighthearted and playful. Yes’ “Long Distance Runaround” is perfect fodder for these musicians with its sprightly figures offering plenty of room to swing and its vocal section giving Lewis the opportunity to take these lyrics to places of regret where John Anderson feared to tread, ending on a fittingly awkward note. Even the Bee Gees’ saccharine sweet, clichaden “How Deep Is Your Love” is suddenly infused with pathos and gravitas.

Critics and jazz purists may have derided The Bad Plus' previous dalliances with pop songs as little more than gimmickry, but such dismissals erroneously ignore the brilliance of these arrangements and the virtuoso musicianship required to execute them with such success. Furthermore, any criticism of the band's reinvention of pop music would be ignoring jazz's history of reworking pop standards from the 1930s through the mid 1960s. What the swing, bebop, and hardbop era players did to the songs of Tin Pan Alley, The Bad Plus are doing to the songs of heavy metal, classic, and indie rock. If it was perfectly acceptable for John Coltrane to interpret Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things,” I see no reason why The Bad Plus can’t tear down and rebuild Heart’s “Barracuda.” Ultimately, it doesn’t appear as though The Bad Plus are losing any nights sleep over such criticisms, as evidenced by this great album’s title. When your work is yielding such phenomenal results as For All I Care, you really shouldn’t care what others think.

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