The Bad Plus (with Wendy Lewis): Lithium

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 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.

January 23, 2009 · 0 comments


The Bad Plus: Smells Like Teen Spirit

The Bad Plus has not exactly lived up to the hype of being the Band That Will Save Jazz, but these guys have showed us that it’s OK to make jazz out of songs that aren’t 80 years old. Take “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” a four-chord rock anthem if ever there was one. Pianist Ethan Iverson claims never to have heard the Nirvana original before his bandmates brought him the charts. Hard to believe, given his spot-on statement of theme. Iverson’s mixed background of classical and jazz helped shape the trio’s sound, but drummer David King’s all-out attack defined it. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was the perfect storm for the Bad Plus’s audience – a rock-loud cover of a familiar tune. This wasn’t the most sophisticated performance, but it made it cool for twentysomethings to be seen in jazz clubs.

October 26, 2007 · 0 comments


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