May 27, 2004

The Bad Plus "Give"

Jazz, unlike most other genres in the musical canon, isn’t an idiom that has ever seemed to cater towards a mass audience or mainstream acceptance. For almost as long as the form has existed, jazz musicians have appeared to almost revel in being ostracized, marginalized, and generally ignored by John and Joan Q. public. One could argue that the possibility of large-scale commercial success in jazz went out with big band and Louis Armstrong. But, at least for me, jazz started to get interesting once this sea change occurred. Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Sun Ra: these are artists who seemed to languish both willingly and unwillingly under the torrid umbrella of obscurity to eventually create some of the most vital, influential works in the history of music. Even today, the nascent creative types of contemporary jazz are largely overlooked by major publicity outlets in favor of more welcoming hard bop revivalists, for instance (see: Wynton Marsalis). In the wake of big band, the most commercially viable jazz records were ones that either a) watered down jazz concepts to the point where the records became nothing more than vanilla, horrendously slick elevator music (see: Kenny G, Fattburger), b) fused elements of jazz with other genres (see: Mahavishnu Orchestra, Matthew Shipp’s collaborations with El-P and Antipop Consortium), or c) featured gimmicky covers of contemporary pop songs.

Yes, I aimed that stab squarely and unmercifully at the Bad Plus.

When These Are The Vistas appeared in early 2003, I kept hearing about this ragtag bunch of Midwestern cats who were playing these playful, unassuming covers of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Heart Of Glass”, among other famous pop tunes. I thought to myself, “‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’? Must jazz musicians have to stoop to covering in order to get press these days?” I finally got around to checking out the record and found that this was no ragtag bunch of Midwestern dilettantes, as I’d initially thought, but rather a powerhouse trio comprised of real, hard-line jazz veterans. By the final few seconds of These Are The Vistas’ last track, this was made abundantly clear. In short- I was pleasantly surprised. Instead of simply moving through a kitschy, lounge runs of these classic rock radio staples- which was what I was expecting- they turned the covers on their heads, rendering them almost unrecognizable (save for the group’s relatively straight run-through of Aphex Twin’s “Flim”). Despite the group’s unique interpretations of famous (and, in certain cases, infamous) songs, there was something I couldn’t seem to get around: with the exception of the album’s Latin-tinged opening track, the album was extraordinarily bland. These Are The Vistas had its moments, but when the dust settled…let’s just say I wondered if the group would have gotten any press to begin with if they’d stuck to strictly originals.

Which brings us to Give, the group’s latest release. This album is essentially These Are The Vistas, Pt. II: Ironic Jazz-Rock Boogaloo. But, why tamper with a good formula that consists of a handful of idiosyncratic yet seemingly ordinary originals (“And Here We Test Our Powers Of Observation” is one particularly solid tune) interspersed with a few well-conceived covers. The result is a record that works quite nicely as background music at that hip bar down the street and looks good on the listening station rack in your local Barnes and Noble.

While the covers may seem like the work of a publicity agent, the group rarely plays it paint-by-numbers, preferring instead to use the song as a palette from which to create their own distinctive portrait. See, for instance, the group’s take on the Pixies’ “Velouria”, which is rendered practically unrecognizable as a half-contemplative dirge/half uptempo rave that certainly took me by surprise. On the other end of the deal, the group’s sole jazz cover- Ornette Coleman’s “Street Woman”- came across as rather half-assed and unfocused. You also cannot deny the fact that these folks can certainly play with the best of ‘em- particularly drummer David King, whose heavy-handed, fluid rolls continue to provide the foundation for the Bad Plus’s boogie.

Despite the quibbles I have with Give, there’s one thing that the Bad Plus have got on their contemporaries, jazz or otherwise: these three gentlemen sound like they’re genuinely having fun. Believe me, when you’ve sat through hundreds upon hundreds of pensive, melodramatic laments (here’s looking at you, Omaha), a little fun is more than a welcome in these parts. Ultimately, I would equate Give with a three-course meal that’s beautifully prepared and tastes exquisitely, but when the table’s cleared, leaves you empty and unfulfilled.

--Jonathan Pfeffer

Artist Website:

No comments: