The Bad Plus (with Wendy Lewis): Lithium

Track

Lithium

Group

The Bad Plus (with Wendy Lewis)

CD

For All I Care (Heads Up 3148)

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Musicians:

Reid Anderson (bass), Ethan Iverson (piano), David King (drums), Wendy Lewis (vocals).

Composed by Kurt Cobain

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Recorded: Cannon Falls, Minnesota, April, 2008

Albumcoverthebadplusforallicare

Rating: 93/100 (learn more)

If the jazz world were a fancy party, The Bad Plus would be the unruly people who just crashed the gate. And they've brought with them various illegal substances to liven up the proceedings. The contraband, in the case of the band's new CD For All I Care, consists of "songs" by Milton Babbit, György Ligeti and The Flaming Lips, cover versions of the uncoverable, so to speak. And, of course, Nirvana. The Bad Plus is the band (need I remind you?) that transformed Kurt Cobain into a composer of jazz standards.

But even when you think you know all of this trio's tricks, they continue to surprise. In this instance they have added vocalist Wendy Lewis to the line-up (a move which group members discussed with Stuart Nicholson in a recent interview on jazz.com). I have written elsewhere about what I call the "new way of phrasing" in jazz—a method of articulating notes that hits them dead in the center, almost the way a keyboard would do. Singer Lewis is very much in this camp. You will find more bends in the Bonneville Speedway than in her vocals, which dismiss the microtonal buzzes and go straight to the punchline. This is very much aligned with the current jazz zeitgeist. Yet in other regards, Lewis seems to plugging into vibes from outside the jazz idiom. The end result is a paradoxical way of delivering lyrics that sounds highly stylized while at the same time aspiring to what Roland Barthes called the 'degree zero' of style. I find this approach very appealing, and perfectly suited to this song—but I suspect that other listeners may struggle to get beyond the faux blasé exterior.

And how does the The Bad Plus work behind a singer? Don't expect traditional comping. At the outset of the track, Anderson and King lock together in an odd start-and-stop rhythm that sounds like your car right before the transmission goes on the blink. And where is Mr. Iverson? He lays out, until Lewis delivers the phrase "I've found God" . . . and then he arrives like a deus ex machina with blazing chords from on high. No, this is not your typical jazz performance. But the party is definitely picking up steam.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia

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Related Links

In Conversation with The Bad Plus by Stuart Nicholson




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