CD Review of For All I Care by The Bad Plus
The Bad Plus: For All I Care
Recommended if you like
weird pop covers,
forward-thinking acoustic jazz
Label
Do the Math
The Bad Plus: For All I Care

Reviewed by Michael Fortes

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E
ver since rock n’ roll usurped jazz’s throne back in the 1950s, the latter genre has struggled to maintain a decent foothold in popular culture. Granted, the jazz-rock "fusion" of Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin, and others who played and studied under Davis, did move some serious units back in the day. But that was more than 40 years ago, and no matter what Wynton Marsalis or Andre Crouch say, the preservationist crowd’s idea of moving forward while staying rooted in tradition has been out of touch ever since it was devised.

Some may shudder at the thought of calling the Bad Plus "jazz," but all that goes to show is they’re probably doing something right. After all, there was a time when jazz combos repurposing popular songs for their own ends was as natural as breathing, but the era in which the Bad Plus – and their audience – has come to know and define "popular song" has been lacking a jazz flag-bearer (outside of Brad Mehldau or Charlie Hunter) who understands the current vernacular so well and can translate it so consistently and enjoyably.

On For All I Care, the guys have taken a much deeper plunge into their musical bread and butter – popular song post-1970, 20th century classical music and Ornette Coleman’s "harmolodics." They’ve done this by, for the first time, packing an album with no original material, sticking solely to reinterpreting songs by ‘70s rock icons like Pink Floyd, Heart and Yes, and throwing in some Bee Gees, Nirvana, Roger Miller and Igor Stravinsky to liven things up. For a group whose recastings of others’ tunes have been as welcome as their originals, this is as a celebratory a moment (though more justifiably so) as when the late R&B crooner Luther Vandross decided to unleash Songs upon us back in ’94.

The Bad Plus

As if this weren’t enough, the trio brought in a vocalist for most of the tracks – yet another first. The heretofore unknown Wendy Lewis, from Cannon Falls, Minnesota, gives fairly straight readings of the material, the results of which are expectedly mixed. Her oddly detached way of delivering a tune is passively heartbreaking at best (the Bee Gees’ "How Deep is Your Love," Roger Miller’s "Lock, Stock and Teardrops," Wilco’s "Radio Cure"), academic at worst (Nirvana’s "Lithium," Heart’s "Barracuda," Yes’ "Long Distance Runaround"), and in between, just a kick to hear (especially Pink Floyd’s "Comfortably Numb" and the Flaming Lips’ "Feeling Yourself Disintegrate" – watch that key change at the end!). In spite of the risky proposition of upsetting the Bad Plus’ metaphorical apple cart with a singer, For All I Care is a surprisingly enjoyable listen. And it’s heaps better than Songs.

In the end, however, it’s the instrumentals – Romanian composer György Ligeti’s "Fém (Etude No. 8)," Stravinsky’s "Variation d’Apollon" and Milton Babbit’s "Semi Simple Variations" – that drive the album. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that most folks who pick this disc up probably will not have heard these obscure compositions before, giving them a fresher impression than the old warhorses the band has recast. But they also place the focus back on Ethan Iverson’s jerky piano, David King’s melodic drums, and Reid Anderson’s out-front trebly bass. Above all, there’s no greater thrill than to hear that the Bad Plus is still as fearless as ever, almost a decade into their existence.

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