For whatever reason, I still can’t bring myself to call The Bad Plus a cover band. I know, that’s a bad way to start, but considering the band themselves describes their own tunes as covers it seemed all right. Moreover, most critics swoon over the trio’s ability to adapt pop-rock tunes into their own brand of avant-garde jazz. And admittedly, so will this one.
After all, it makes sense. Their repertoire consists of reworkings of The Pixies, Black Sabbath, Nirvana, Aphex Twin, Rush, Radiohead and The Police, mingled with about twice as many original compositions. But, these reworkings are far beyond jazzy takes on pop ditties. Sure, they may lift a chorus from Blondie or pinch a refrain from Bowie, but they imbue everything with a naturally distinctive flavor that only these boys from Minnesota could muster. It’s like calling a Picasso or Pollock painting of some water lilies a reworking of Monet. That just doesn’t work. This is all about creation, not reformation.
The Bad Plus has certainly found an equation that works well for them. By framing their originals with a slew of titles from other artists, they create an abidingly fun, unique album experience. On Prog – their 5th studio disc and first since parting ways with Columbia Records to sign with semi-independent label Heads Up/Telarc – The Bad Plus have perhaps finally cemented themselves as original jazz composers. The most popular Bad Plus tracks include Radiohead’s “Karma Police” and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” but this album may begin to change that trend and shift The Bad Plus into fresh territory. After all, what makes this band so listenable is their style – the exquisite timing and synchrony coupled with their emotive, energetic sound. That style has consistently evolved over the past few albums, and breaks new ground with PROG.
The album opens with their take on Tears for Fears‘ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” a gentle introduction that draws to a close with drummer Dave King coming to life and setting an elaborate tone for the rest of the disc. Two original compositions are the highlights of PROG, namely “Physical Cities” and “The World Is The Same,” which carry between them everything an audiophile could crave – strong, eloquent instrumentals, a willingness to explore their sound without alienating the listener, and natural, yet dramatic ebbs in tempo and emotional content. The attention to detail on both compositions is extraordinary. They beg to be heard by appreciative ears, although I couldn’t help but feel bassist Reid Anderson was a bit underpowered throughout the entire disc. His skill shines on tracks like “Giant,” but I’m left wanting more.
The covers on PROG, as always, prove impressive. David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” is a surreal and delicate piece that builds to a strong crescendo and features some technical play between King and pianist Ethan Iverson. “Tom Sawyer,” a 1981 Rush single, pushes into avant-garde territory a bit more than the rest of the album, but retains a memorable, catchy loop. Iverson’s play on this track is truly inspired. Imagine a hybrid of Brian Haas and Brad Mehldau and you’ve got a good idea of Iverson’s talent.
I could go on for volumes about this album but I still couldn’t do justice to the sound. If you’ve heard The Bad Plus before, this is a step up from their past work. If you’re a newcomer to the sound, don’t be put off by descriptors like “exploratory jazz.” This is completely listenable. Perhaps we’ll begin to see a shift away from The Bad Plus’ popularity based on covers and towards popularity based on their ability to write fresh, stimulating, and most importantly, progressive compositions.
JamBase | Birdland
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