A lot of jazz acts have been trying to create "New Standards" by taking contemporary rock and pop songs and giving them the jazz treatment. While some of these efforts have shown merit, most of them, like Herbie Hancock's appropriately-titled The New Standard
, have approached rock and pop from a jazzman's perspective. Rather than trying to replicate the songs' gestalt, they have replaced it with the artifacts of jazz, its flexible rhythms and extended solos. Not so the Bad Plus.
On their debut album, this trio of musicians -- pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson, and drummer David King -- take a much more rock-based approach to their material. I don't mean that they're plugging in synths or anything like that -- their instrumentation is that of a standard jazz piano trio, with an acoustic grand and even an upright bass -- but they play with a viscerally propulsive sense of rhythm and an edge, whether they're playing "covers" or their own original material. It also helps that they have producer Tchad Blake on board. Blake, a member of the Latin Playboys and the brains behind the boards for a host of musicians from Low to Los Lobos, lends the big sound and production values found on rock releases. This, coupled with a relative economy in their arrangements and aggressive playing attitude, give the Bad Plus's renditions of "New Standards" a much more "rawk" feel than, say, Herbie Hancock's. At the same time, they retain a sense of mischief and use it to good effect, especially when it comes to their covers.
A previous Ethan Iverson solo release may lend a clue as to the BP's attitude towards covers; the album is called Deconstruction (Standards). This is exactly how the group treats standards -- they may maintain a given song's attitude, but are quite free with its material, and have something individual to say with a song rather than mimicking its details. Some covers show admiration in their realization. In "Smells Like Teen Spirit", for example, Iverson takes pains to find a way to capture Kurt Cobain's powerful energy, buoyed by ear-shredding guitar parts on Nevermind, in the context and confines of an acoustic piano. Sometimes Iverson adds dissonance to the song's harmonies, and blurred notes that simulate Cobain's throaty yawps, seeking to emulate the character found on the original. His chordal selections never seem to be "Longhair" embellishments, fancying up a four chord tune with stock substitute voicings, but rather lend an even darker and more ironic edge, quite in the "Teen Spirit" spirit. Elsewhere, Iverson lets forth tremendous glissandi, aiming at emulating the guitar's feedback in the bridge of the song (they succeed in terms of energy, but not sound quality). Midway through, the Bad Plus allows itself a moment of jazz soloing, but a very taciturn one, in which Iverson releases an angular but tightly coiled virtuosity that never lets down the overall terseness of the approach. The coda unveils an onslaught of cacophony: it sounds as if Iverson bangs every key on his Steinway, leaving the sustain pedal down; afterward, two walkie talkies are allowed to feed back amidst the clamor.
The Bad Plus also play Aphex Twin's "Flim", effectively integrating aspects of the electronic original onto acoustic instruments. This tune serves as a showcase for David King's considerable percussive skills, which here include the employment of a baby rattle and toy megaphone, as well as a battery of nifty kit drum licks.
The other pop song cover seems less "lovingly deconstructed" (as the liner notes describe "Teen Spirit"). In fact, "Heart of Glass" seems to be an almost dismembered version of the Blondie song -- as the liner notes once again describe, "ruthlessly deconstructed". The Bad Plus take a berserk delight in the rapid shifts of treatment -- at one point playing the head with an almost Scriabin-like chromatic scale-ridden left hand from Iverson, followed by a jaunty single line melody punctuated by rhythm section thuds, as if trying to snap poor Debbie Harry out of it! The music becomes progressively more rhythmically attenuated from the metric structure until it devolves into a free jazz free-for-all. Just when you think they've killed it, the tune rises up from the pile of corpses to an exuberant, almost Bacharachian postlude.
I hope that These are the Vistas doesn't go down in history as "that record where the jazz guys played Nirvana", because it is much more than that. While I don't begrudge the group the buzz that famous covers no doubt have engendered (including coverage in the NY Times), some of the most lovely music here is original. "Big Eater" throws syncopations at you until you forget where the downbeat is, and then turns around and reminds you why your hips have been shaking. "Everywhere You Turn" builds slowly, using thickly Romantic piano chords over a gently swinging background rhythm -- the juxtaposition of jazzy rhythms and classical harmonies, for once, ending up as a delicious juxtaposition rather than a square artifact. "1972 Bronze Medalist" finds the Bad Plus making more out of an insistent two-chord ostinato than anyone since the Ramones. Iverson picks all of the right "wrong notes" for his single line solos.
There has been a lot of terrific jazz released on small labels of late, but relatively few new major-label jazz acts have been allowed to take as many chances and remain as individual in their approach as the Bad Plus. Let's hope that the excellent These are the Vistas is a foretaste of things to come, both from this group and from the record industry as a whole. Lets hope, too, that the folks at Columbia and others in their weight class will realize that if you support courageous artists, you will reap more artistic gold than you will with conformist flavors of the month.