There's an old saying about a dog walking upright on his hind legs: it's not that he does it well, but rather that he does it at all that's interesting. Listening to the arrangement of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by the Bad Plus brought this to mind. While 7 of 10 tracks on their major-label debut, These Are The Vistas, are originals, it's the three pop cover tunes (which also include Blondie's "Heart Of Glass" and the Aphex Twin's "Flim") that are sure to garner the most press, not to mention the biggest uproar. But with such "controversial" records, it's best to evaluate the music on its own terms, as the musicians are rarely responsible for the hype or marketing surrounding their work.
The three musicians in the Bad Plus are powerful players, andaided by rock producer Tchad Blake, who thankfully refrained from electronic trickery and recorded the band livethey create an original sound full of fire, humor, wit, and character. Pianist Ethan Iverson plays crisply, employing big blocks of sound, cross-rhythms, and dissonances in a way that recalls some of Dave Brubeck's spikier moments. A big, meaty tone and constantly inventive lines are spun out by gifted bassist Reid Anderson. Drummer Dave King is a paradox, simultaneously bludgeoning and nimble, sounding at one moment like Tony Williams on heavy caffeine, at another like Bill Bruford circa mid-'70s King Crimson. The group's sound is immediately arresting, clearly in the straight-ahead jazz tradition but undeniably modern and muscular in way that relates to rock.
Several of the group's compositions are memorable and clever. The opener, "Big Eater," maniacally piles shifting rhythmic accents on top of each other, relieved periodically by a more lyrical interlude. "Keep the Bugs Off...", a loping ode to Midwestern truckers as humorous as its title, swings more than any other tune on the record, thanks to Anderson's bluesy bass solos and some of Iverson's best soloing. A pleasantly flat-footed character study, "1972 Bronze Medalist," sounds a little like an updated gloss on Vince Guaraldi's "Peanuts" material. The closer & quot;Silence Is The Question" builds slowly on a theme resembling Scott LaFaro's "Gloria's Steps," ending in a Rachmaninoff-like climax.
But what about those covers? Most striking is the Nirvana tune, in which the softer tones of the jazz trio bring out the sadness inherent in the song while maintaining much of its original menacing power. "Flim" is cleverly transferred from the electronic realm, especially King's clever machine- evoking drumming. On all these covers, as well as a couple of the originals, the real problem is the paucity of solos in which familiar material is reworked within a novel melodic or harmonic framework. Save for a brief, Monk-ish piano solo, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" essentially follows the changes without the kind of radical reinvention that, say, Coltrane performed on "My Favorite Things." The vicious deconstruction of "Heart of Glass" is messy rather than reveletory. Hearing these modern pop songs transferred to the jazz trio's sound-world is startling and intriguing, but only initially; if the Bad Plus want to make the case that these tunes can provide grist for the jazz mill as did showtunes 50 years ago, they'll need to focus more on reimagination, rather than simply reinstrumentation.
This caveat aside, the Bad Plus are one of the most promising new groups, of any genre, to emerge in some time, and they have made a great album. But is it a great jazz album? This is more debatable; but perhaps in the face of These Are The Vista 's accomplishments, such a question is churlish. Like the proverbial bipedal canine, what the Bad Plus have done is thrilling, and that's more than enoughfor the moment.
Personnel: Reid Anderson: bass; Ethan Iverson: piano; David King: drums.