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Feb 13, 2009

A new collaboration with vocalist Wendy Lewis poses some compelling questions about the future music of jazz trio The Bad Plus.

By Drew Stoga

The Bad Plus is not a band that is content to rest on past
accomplishments. They are not interested in repeating themselves either.
The progressive jazz trio—pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson
and drummer David King—have made a career of tinkering with long-held
jazz traditions while taking the genre’s past into the future. 
But in a move that may surprise even their most ardent fans, the band’s eighth album, For All I Care,
features all non-original material as well as a guest vocalist—in this
case, alt-rocker Wendy Lewis. Both are firsts for the group.
“We had talked about doing a collaboration like this for years,”
Anderson explains about the new record. “We just wanted to really shake
things up and do something new…it seemed like [adding] a singer was the
most logical thing to do to continue with our habit of deconstructing
modern pop music.”
“Deconstructing modern pop music” has been one of the band’s
specialties since its inception in 2000. They have become known for
placing their own uniquely skewed compositions alongside creative
re-interpretations of songs by diverse popular artists like Björk,
Aphex Twin and the Bee Gees.
Iverson, for one, does not see his band’s “pop habit” as anything
strange: “Refashioning music of the day as an improviser is something
that is part of the jazz tradition…It’s really part of the heart of
jazz—taking a tune you know and improvising on it.”

Taking its name from a line from the Kurt Cobain-penned song, “Lithium,” For All I Care
places songs from popular artists of the last few decades—Pink Floyd,
The Flaming Lips and Wilco, to name a few—alongside a few 20th-century
arrangements by big-name classical composers like Igor Stravinsky and
Milton Babbitt.
“Lithium” is a fitting start to the album, as it begins with a
relatively straightforward opening verse before dipping into a
rollicking piano solo. It only gets stranger from there, as a choppy
rhythm emerges, leaving notes hanging and stretching seemingly forever.

Other tunes—like The Flaming Lip’s “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate” and
Roger Miller’s “Lock, Stock and Teardrops”—are given ballad treatments.
But some of the album’s greatest surprises come on the instrumental
pieces. The band captures the complexity and textures of the melodies
while at the same time adding an underlying rhythm that is, at times,
danceable and funky.
On paper, it may seem like the band has made some odd choices in its
song selection. But hearing the record, an unexpected cohesiveness
It is no small feat to successfully place the Pink Floyd classic “Comfortably Numb” immediately before a Györgi Ligeti etude.
But in this case, they make it work.
According to King, the trio isn’t intimidated by the idea of “exploring
some of the more intense aspects of 20th-century classical music for a
piano-based drums trio and then putting it alongside a Heart tune or a
Nirvana tune. Examining the music on an equal plane and doing it
un-ironically, hopefully doing both a real service.”

While in theory The Bad Plus have always operated as a jazz band—they
restrict themselves to acoustic piano, bass and drums—they have the
kind of power and precision usually associated with progressive rock.
It is their lyrical playing that allows them to make a tender ballad—or even a classical composition—their own.
Though the band may take their music in a variety of different
directions, King sees The Bad Plus’s mission as relatively
straightforward: “We are actually working within a tradition and trying
to use music of today and trying to push the trajectory of what’s
possible out there.”
With this frame of mind, it makes sense for a trio of jazz musicians to find inspiration in both Cobain and Coltrane.
“When you consider one thing more legitimate than the other, you are
immediately taking away the power of your experience. You got to
believe in your time,” King explains. “We have to make something worth
something in our time.”
“I think in the post-modern era there are real questions like, where is
music going?” explains Iverson. “Everyone is interested in dissolving
boundaries everywhere in the arts. This is very old news. But really
trying to take it seriously is what we are interested in.”
He continues, “we are asking some questions with this record, and I like that. What is the music of the future?”

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