04 February 2009

Review: For All I Care

The Bad Plus Joined by Wendy Lewis
For All I Care

Since first being acknowledged by mainstream media outlets, The Bad Plus have been tagged with the unfortunate label of the Jazz Trio That Covers Popular Songs (see, for instance, this NPR profile from 2003). This is unfortunate on multiple levels. The band is comprised of serious (and seriously talented) musicians who take great care in their choice of repertoire (i.e. they do not play covers for the sake of playing covers, but because they can make an interesting artistic statement by doing so). Focusing on their covers also ignores the fact that all three band members (Reid Anderson, Ethan Iverson, and Dave King) can write good tunes (see, for example, "Big Eater" from These Are the Vistas and "And Here We Test Our Powers Of Observation" from Give, both written by Anderson).

Besides being (unfairly, in my opinion) tagged as a covers band in some quarters, The Bad Plus have been further misunderstood by writers who claim their usage of covers is simply a snarky attempt at irony. The band addressed this misconception directly on their blog (read it here), so I won't belabor the point, but suffice it to say the characterization of the band as ironic jesters misses the mark.

With that in mind, I was surprised to find out that the band's newest album, For All I Care, would not only be comprised entirely of covers, but would also feature a vocalist, Wendy Lewis. For a jazz ensemble that's had to deal with the stigma that comes along with covering pop tunes, this is an unexpected turn of events.

That is not to say that I did not like the album. Like much of their other work, For All I Care features the same inventive take on familiar material as their other albums. One of the most impressive traits of The Bad Plus is the way they make covers their own. If you weren't familiar with any of the tunes on the album, you would be forgiven for assuming they were written by any of The Bad Plus. Of course, if it were up to me, I would have cut a few tracks off of this album to make room for a few originals from any of the band members.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the album is the way the band utilizes Lewis' vocals. Instead of placing her at the forefront of the group, she instead serves as somewhat of an accompaniment to the counter-melodies and rhythmic figures running underneath the band's arrangements. Before listening to the album, I wondered whether Lewis would steal too much of The Bad Plus' thunder, but for the most part, she fits in well. Her soft-burning vocals on "Comfortably Numb" give the band ample room to roam, while "Radio Cure" allows for plenty of room for exploration between verses.

Another reviewer lamented that by adding vocals, the band lost "the advantage of leaving the words behind, allowing them to shape things in any number of directions." But such a comment ignores the fact that these covers are not about ironic deconstruction, but earnest renderings of cherished material. Like Brad Mehldau, another young musician unafraid to tackle contemporary pop tunes and classic rock, The Bad Plus deftly toes the line between presenting these covers in a familiar context and exploring the creative possibilities inherent in the tunes.

However, the problem with performing covers is the baggage inherent in song selection. While the members of the band (presumably) all like the songs they choose to perform, the same cannot be said of the audience. It doesn't matter what the band does with the tune, I will probably never like "Barracuda." This does not make their rendition of the tune any less satisfying, but it nonetheless detracts from the album somewhat (for me, at least). Indeed, among the highlights of this album for me were the tunes with which I was not familiar, like Stravinsky's "Variation d'Apollon" and Milton Babbit's "Semi-Simple Variations." Nonetheless, For All I Care serves as a welcome addition to The Bad Plus' discography that newcomers and seasoned fans of the group alike would enjoy.

Track Listing: Lithium; Comfortably Numb; Fém (Etude No. 8); Radio Cure; Long Distance Runaround; Semi-Simple Variations; How Deep Is Your Love; Barracuda; Lock, Stock and Teardrops; Variation d’Apollon; Feeling Yourself Disintegrate
Personnel: Ethan Iverson, piano, bells; Reid Anderson, bss, vocals; Dave King, drums, vocals; Wendy Lewis, vocals

BONUS: Read Ethan Iverson's piece from last month's
Jazz Times on adapting modern classical repertoire for The Bad Plus has been posted on the band's blog. Read it here (the piece is below the photos).

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