It’s been called America’s only truly original art form, yet for some reason, jazz is seen by the stereotypical average listener to be almost as inaccessible as classical. Let me clarify. I’m not talking about `smooth jazz,’ the Splenda of the genre, essentially a mind numbing soporific for those without imaginations. I’m talking about real jazz with intricate solos, incredible fills and improvisations galore! But the kids nowadays, save for probably select band geeks, think of jazz as patently uncool. The Bad Plus are attempting to change that notion and seem to be succeeding.
The rock community hasn’t yet wholeheartedly embraced the Bad Plus, nor do the jazz powers-that-be claim them as their own, but this postmodern jazz trio is almost single-handedly brokering summits between the two camps. Previous to their current fourth album, the Bad Plus have entertained the synergistic, NPR listening, over-informed and ultra-hip public with covers of songs by Nirvana, Aphex Twin, Blondie, the Pixies and Black Sabbath. And while many might think of this blend of rock and jazz to be a gimmick, the truth is that the Bad Plus have done more for the image of jazz in the last four years than most musicians had accomplished over life-long careers.
These covers continue on Prog, the latest album by bassist Reid Anderson, pianist Ethan Iverson and drummer David King. Straight out of the gate, the Bad Plus provide a laid-back take on Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” The song is stripped down to its bare essence, not so much that its unidentifiable, but down to those basic melodies which spark that recognition. “Physical Cities” isn’t a cover, it’s an original written by Anderson, but it really might as well be a jazz rendition of a Mastodon song. There is so much metal hidden in the jazz phrasing that I was tempted to throw horns. “Life on Mars” follows, being one of my favorite Bowie tracks, so you can imagine that I was somewhat hesitant about any take on this song. Again, the interpretation is subtle, with the song not even nearing anything remotely similar to the original until about four minutes in.
Three originals follow in “Mint,” “Giant” and “Thirftstore Jewelry.” The covers may get all the attention, but it is the band’s originals that really prove them to be the rock stars of the jazz world. “Giant” in particular, with its pop melodies interpreted by jazz phrasing is stunning. The only song that could be classified as `prog’ on the album is their nearly straightforward cover of Rush’s “Tom Sawyer,” but the Bad Plus seems to be using the term in a different way, or should I say the more accurate way. This is progressive music in that this band is bringing the genre forward into a new era. Although I would love it if every teenager owned copies of Kind of Blue, Straight, No Chaser and A Love Supreme, that idea is somewhat unrealistic. If anyone could make me believe that such a thing might be possible, it’s the Bad Plus.
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