CD REVIEW The Bad Plus, Plus One
Quartet Remembers Cobain, Stravinsky … and Rocks Hard
The Bad Plus
For All I Care
Produced by The Bad Plus
Heads Up International
February 3, 2009
Jazz is a genre that consistently flirts with risk-taking. Whether this manifests itself in compositional structure, instrumentation, harmonic choices, or transcending implicit musical boundaries, The Bad Plus is a group that has done it all. Since the release of the group’s first record on the Fresh Sound / New Talent imprint, the critic community has argued over the true categorization of these three veteran musicians from Minneapolis. At the very base, they are indisputably a jazz group. But what causes most listeners to question this blanket classification is The Bad Plus’ penchant for risk. Boasting a catalogue of astounding original compositions (each member plays piano and writes for the whole band) and an arsenal of jazz-tinged rock and pop covers, The Bad Plus explores more musical territory than most of their jazz or indie contemporaries. This past summer, at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam, Netherlands (an event I was fortunate enough to attend) Reid Anderson (bass), Ethan Iverson (piano), and David King (drums) announced the upcoming release of their new album, For All I Care. They also mentioned that they’d had a surprise waiting for the audience backstage. Seasoned Bad Plus fans are no stranger to the antics that this trio brings to the stage, but there’s just one thing that fans were not expecting: Wendy Lewis.
For All I Care is the Bad Plus’ first effort with a fourth member — a vocalist, to be specific. At North Sea, the nascent quartet played an energetic and uplifting set of deconstructed rock covers. Notorious for turning songs like Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” into tight and authentic jazz anthems, it only made sense for Lewis to handle the vocals for a whole new set of covers. For All I Care pleasantly opens with a modern interpretation of Nirvana’s “Lithium,” disorienting the listener right off the bat with a jittery, nauseous tempo hiccup as Lewis echoes Cobain’s famous lyrics, “I’m so happy / ‘cause today / I found my friends.”
The cover attempts on For All I Care represent a new challenge for The Bad Plus. Typically, Anderson or Iverson would take care of the melodies. Now, with Lewis on board mastering the vocal melodies, the bass and piano serve a new, expansive purpose. Instead of diluting the song with superfluous harmony, Iverson does a remarkable job of laying low while Lewis sings and shining through during his solos. King’s place in The Bad Plus has always entailed rhythmic attack and fast cymbal work, but even he’s taken the time to successfully pinpoint where to let loose and where to hold back.
Lewis’ voice adds a new emotional element that The Bad Plus may not have achieved on previous cover songs. If Anderson’s haunting bassline on Wilco’s “Radio Cure” isn’t enough to give you chills, then Lewis’ interpretation of Tweedy’s languid lines will. Coming from an indie-rock background, Lewis is at her best when she sings at the top of her range. When King makes an entrance into “Radio Cure,” right before the chorus, Iverson plays an ascending line that leads into Lewis’ gripping shout: “Oh distance has no way / of making love / understandable.”
The diversity of the covers is a not only a testament to The Bad Plus’ wide tastes and ability, but also to Lewis’ vocal capacity. She puts on a bad girl attitude for Heart’s “Barracuda” and adopts a more compassionate demeanor for The Flaming Lips’ “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate.” Lewis steps out to let The Bad Plus take on some instrumental covers of 20th century classical music, too. The tight work on Gyorgi Ligeti’s “Fém (Etude No. 8)” would make you dizzy were it not for some strategically placed drum breaks. A beautiful version of Stravinsky’s “Apollo” appears in the second half of the album and showcases the musicians’ ability to play highly composed passages with unbelievable precision.
Veteran Bad Plus fans might be upset to find the band collaborating with a singer and playing an album devoid of original music, but For All I Care is still very much a Bad Plus album. Their signature style of deconstruction and reconstruction (a “fascinating” process, Lewis remarks) is what allows this album to maintain its place in The Bad Plus’ catalogue. It seems, though, that this may end up being the trio’s only album-related collaboration with Lewis, so fans can expect another instrumental Bad Plus album in the near future. My only regret for people who purchase the CD version of For All I Care is that the limited edition vinyl pressing (if you can find it online) contains two incredible bonus tracks: a stunning version of U2’s “New Year’s Day” and a Reid Anderson original, “You and I is a Comfort Zone.” If you’re curious to hear what this quartet sounds like, be sure to check them out when they come to Berklee Performance Center on April 3rd.