Mar 302021

In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!

the bad plus covers

It’s a good time for a look back at The Bad Plus. The jazz trio recently announced a new chapter in their 20-year career: they are downsizing to a duo, as pianist Orrin Evans departs the band. (Evans joined in 2017 to replace the band’s original pianist Ethan Iverson.) The remaining musical chairs belong to bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King. The moment is an interesting one for a band that always rejected the “piano-led trio” descriptor, insisting instead on “leaderless collective.” While fans await the band’s next chapter, we have highlights from their previous chapters to dig into.

A group of childhood friends from the upper-Midwest, The Bad Plus pretty much defined the postmillennial jazz scene with its self-titled debut in 2001, and its major-label follow-up, These Are the Vistas (2003). TBP’s originality, talent, and relative youth made for a compelling mix, but what really turned heads was their song selection. They ignored the jazz repertoire and drew from pop genres instead, reforging hits by ABBA, Aphex Twin, Blondie, and Nirvana. This fresh brew was strictly acoustic, entirely instrumental, and highly combustible.

Naturally, gatekeepers complained about grunge and electronica/IDM entering a jazz set, and the rock crowd cringed at TBP’s irregular meters and dissonant chords—but TBP didn’t blink. In fact their follow-up album, Give, took on the Pixies and closed with Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.” All this inclusivity somehow felt new and daring in the early 2000s, even though jazz has never not been an inclusive music. Some even took the covers as a sort of prank. But the band dove into “Heart of Glass,” say, with the same energy and intent as a John Coltrane piece. A young and eclectic audience began turning up for TBP; so did more traditional listeners. The band was soon playing not only the world’s best jazz rooms, but rock clubs as well, and hitting non-sectarian events like Bonnaroo.

The band’s original material mattered as much the covers. Each band member emerged as a distinctive composer even while they focused on collective improv. Bad Plus originals might be meditative and/or riotous, but they appealed to anyone with open ears and a taste for adventure, jazz nerd or no.

It was full steam ahead for two busy decades. By mid-career the band was tangling with the 20th-century classical music canon. They recorded and performed Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, and dropped selections from atonal modernists (György Ligeti, Milton Babbitt) along-side songs by Wilco, the Bee Gees, and The Flaming Lips. The band has kept things fresh by bringing in electronics, collaborating with peers (Joshua Redmond, Wendy Lewis), and taking on side projects—see King’s demented drum/life lessons, and Iverson’s Do the Math website.

Speaking of Iverson, note that all the following songs are from the band’s original line-up with Iverson on piano. The other iterations of TBP have focused exclusively on original material–no covers to cover!

The Bad Plus–Iron Man (Black Sabbath cover)

Some would say “Iron Man” is the essential heavy metal song. TBP definitely test their metal mettle on it. Their version sounds like the original Black Sabbath vinyl got warped in the sun and then melted onto a side of Thelonious Monk. The drum breaks—all three of them—bring to mind a mad scientist tinkering in the lab, and then a wrecking crew dismantling the Iron Man for parts in a warehouse. What transpires at the 5:04 mark and beyond is beyond me, but it’s beautiful, and it always makes me want to hear the whole thing again.

The Bad Plus–Everybody Wants to Rule the World (Tears for Fears cover)

The Tears for Fears hit “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” was never a song I loved, or even liked, but the Bad Plus interpretation of it gets the chef’s kiss gesture. The cover brought me around to embracing the original after all (not with a bear hug, though, just a quick, awkward embrace).

The TBP version may try your patience in some places, but it’s that messing-with-the-head that brings people back for more. The first highlight comes after a few iterations of the verses, when the band changes the pulse and drops into a dreamy fantasia (if that’s not the correct technical term for this sort of thing, it should be); this mood dissolves as the pace quickens. The closing section is the other highlight, with its circling repetition and a build-up of intensity–the drum-kit comes to a full boil before the final release.

The Bad Plus–Human Behavior (Björk cover)

This is one from The Bad Plus reject pile, an outtake that never made it onto an album side. But who cares if it’s not the A grade stuff? Maybe it’s not even B-plus Bad Plus material—but it’s good, and it’s Björk, so we’re in.

Just listen to the (animal) gut strings of the double bass as they punch out the lumbering bass line of “Human Behavior.” The tone! As for the rest, “you better get ready to be confused. There’s definitely, definitely, definitely no logic.”

The Bad Plus–Flim (Aphex Twin cover)

In interviews, TBP drummer Dave King praises drummers who play with lots of personality—any determined student can acquire chops, he says. Aphex Twin’s “Flim” is therefore an intriguing cover choice, since no actual drum kit or drummer got involved in its making. Gear-heads debate how Aphex Twin (Richard David James) programmed the drums on the original—whether it’s a drum machine, sequencer, or sampler at work, or perhaps a mix of digital processes. The main point is that it wasn’t a matter of sticks hitting skins to vibrate the air.

Mostly it’s King in the foreground throughout the piece, and part of the fun is to watch his maneuverings and to appreciate his touch, the human hand responding to the digitized polyrhythms of the original. Ethan Iverson at the piano constrains his playing to the child’s-play melody, and he may be as bored as he looks (except that Iverson always looks bored, as if he is waiting for the A train, or for the headline act to come out).

The Bad Plus–Long Distance Runaround (Yes cover)

The vocalist here is alt-rocker Wendy Lewis, who is all over TBP’s For All I Care release—thus far their only album with vocals. When TBP called upon Lewis to collaborate, she proposed that they take on “Long Distance Runaround” from Yes’ Fragile album. Luckily the guys in TBP said “Yes.”

A good cover can make you go back to the original with fresh questions; in this case, the question was “Could Yes really have been that weird?” The answer is: Yes. Listen to the way the original “Long Distance Runaround” ends, both lyrically and musically. The comparison makes TBP appear not so off-kilter after all with their fractures and complications. When TBP members were teen-age FM radio heads, they imprinted on prog rock experimentalism. It’s not just their free jazz/avant-garde fascination that makes TBP so twisted.

The Bad Plus–Comfortably Numb (Pink Floyd cover)

One more with Wendy Lewis on vocals. Bassist Reid Anderson joins in on harmony for the song’s magisterial chorus. (Who knew he could sing?) Lewis takes liberties with the verses, but on the chorus sections she’s more or less faithful to the original; Pink Floyd’s plaintiveness comes through here. The two singers keep it together through the last section as the drums and piano do their best to thrown them off and drown them out. The difficulty of the arrangement reflects the struggle Roger Waters was writing about—that of a fragile being getting overtaken, overwhelmed, by nameless forces.

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