The Bad Plus: “For All I Care”
The notion of taking a familiar pop or rock song and giving it a jazz makeover is nothing new, either for jazz or for The Bad Plus– if you haven’t heard their slow-burn, menacing take on “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” seek it out, and it’s doubtful that you’ll ever hear the original in the same light again. Long resistant to the idea of canon, the trio made up of bassist Reid Anderson, pianist Ethan Iverson, and drummer David King has never given much consideration for the genre’s standards, and that’s put them in an enviable and unique position: Their irreverent spirit and modernist bent have made them the hipster’s jazz band of choice, a group beloved by folks who normally don’t care for jazz, yet their instrumental chops and inventive originals have found them respect among jazzheads, as well. And now, with the release of For All I Care, they’re cashing in on all that goodwill with an album that’s both their most resistant to strict conceptions of jazz music, but also the one that most clearly embodies the spirit of the genre at its best. It’s their boldest, most forceful call yet for a revision to the Great American Songbook, a case for a new collection of “standards.”
Since their canon is light on Ellington and Parker, but heavy on the likes of Bowie and Tears for Fears, one expects any new Bad Plus album to have some oddball song selections, but For All I Care takes their revisionist songbook to a new level. There are no original songs here, but there are plenty of selections from the world of rock– both the cool (another Nirvana tune, “Lithium,” as well as songs by Wilco and The Flaming Lips) and the kitschy (Bee Gees, Yes, Heart), as well as a couple of tunes by relatively recent, non-canonical classical composers of the 20th century. It’s a wide-ranging cross-section of songs that, for whatever reason, have never been taken too seriously by jazz musicians, but The Bad Plus has always been too smart to treat their quirky covers like novelties; they treat these compositions with the same elasticity that more conventional jazz groups might treat a Gershwin tune, as if these songs aren’t just classic rock radio fodder, but part of our shared, cultural history– like folk songs in the oldest sense of the term, songs that belong to the community and are meant to be reconsidered and revised, taken apart and put back together in strange and exciting new ways. Thus, Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” becomes a spacey dirge, Wilco’s “Radio Cure” an exercise in controlled chaos, the Bee Gees’ “How Deep is Your Love” a ballad with big feeling and dark undercurrents.
The band pulls these songs together– disparate though they may be– to suit their own vision, making them all sound, basically, like Bad Plus songs, without totally erasing the flavors of the original compositions. Taken together, these songs strike a remarkably consistent tone, and even pick up on some of the same themes– addiction, uncertainty, and loss. Indeed, the album is a druggy, hazy affair, filled with disonance and studio anarchy, the band members making them sound trippy and dark, whether the originals were that way or not. It’s not exactly swing, nor is it a jazz album to be played at dinner parties, but the eerie, doped-up vibe is itelf addictive, trippy and off-kilter but strangely playful, performed with a sort of punchdrunk glee. The music mirrors the dark undercurrents of the songs, giving the record a sort of conceptual thrust.
And all this without mentioning the most drastic departure from past Bad Plus record– the presence of a vocalist, Wendy Lewis, who acts as frontwoman on almost all of these songs, save for a handful of instrumentals that feel almost like interludes or palette-cleansers. The addition of a vocalist to the line-up might sound like a big deal, but, strangely, it both enhances the songs without messing with the group’s chemistry too much. Having the lyrics to these songs present underscores their emotional unity, and because Lewis is an indie rocker rather than a big-voices jazz diva, she fits in well with the hipster persona of the band members. She’s a different kind of jazz singer for a different kind of jazz band performing a different version of the jazz canon.
But of course, the great triumph here, as with all the past Bad Plus albums, is that, as much as this music gives the surface illusion of bucking jazz conventions, it actually does nothing if not capture the anarchic spirit of jazz at its best. The musicians display just enough knowledge of jazz idioms and conventions that you can discern their obvious glee in existing outside those idioms and conventions, yet they are nothing if not respectful of the improvisational spirit and liberating imagination that characterizes the best jazz music. For All I Care is music without pretense: It is clearly built on a set of traditions. Determing just which traditions those are, and where one ends and the next begins, is a lot less clear. The Bad Plus wouldn’t have it any other way, and that’s what makes their music bold, adventurous, and altogether inviting, all at the same time.