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Music Review: The Bad Plus Joined by Wendy Lewis – For All I Care

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Call trio The Bad Plus the punks of jazz–their ability to transform classic and alternative rock (as well as the occasional pop song) into avant-garde jazz continues to impress, and their own compositions resemble extended jam sessions.  Often called "postmodern jazz," "post-rock," or even "post-bop" these artists continue to stretch their sound and shift the traditional jazz paradigm, and for that they are to be commended. 

Who else could turn Bjork's "Human Behavior," Blondie's "Heart of Glass," or Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" into convincing jazz pieces?  With their latest release, For All I Care, the trio ventures into foreign territory: jazz with vocals.  This time, Wendy Lewis, lead singer of Minneapolis alt-rock group Redstart, joins them for several songs.  The results are mixed but, as is always the case with The Bad Plus, never dull.

The Bad Plus with Wendy Lewis.  Photo by Michael DvorakLewis possesses a stripped-down voice mostly free of vibrato and overreaching ranginess.  Her tone fits certain songs well — for example, on Nirvana's "Lithium," she convincingly sneers on lines like "I'm so ugly/That's OK 'cause so are you."  Her voice soars, however, on the bridge, her anger mirroring the original Kurt Cobain recording.  On "Comfortably Numb," Lewis takes on a dreamy quality as she sings over the spacey, hallucinatory quality of The BadPlus's arrangement. 

Overall she fares best on "Long Distance Runaround," transforming Yes's rock classic into a beautiful lament.  Listen to this cover, and you'll never think of the often-played chestnut the same way again.  The band really lets loose on Heart's "Barracuda," with Reid Anderson (bass), Ethan Iverson (piano), and Dan King (drums) providing pounding accompaniment to Lewis' strong vocals.  While they could have performed a tongue-in-cheek version of the classic rock staple, they stay faithful to the hard-rocking aspects of the original. 

While Lewis's vocals suit the band's rock covers well, it's The Bad Plus's instrumentals that compel most.  On tracks such as "Fem (Etude No. 8)", "Semi-Simple Variations", and "Variation d'Apollon", Anderson, Iverson, and King demonstrate their impressive skills and abilities to combine rock, classical and jazz into one unique mixture.  Would Wilco's "Radio Cure" or the Flaming Lips' "Feel Yourself Disintegrate" have benefited just as much from an instrumental treatment?  It would have been fascinating for the band to offer two versions of those tracks, as Lewis's voice sometimes distracts from the band's incredible musicianship and power. 

One track that would work better as an instrumental is their cover of the Bee Gees' "How Deep Is Your Love."  Lewis's blunt delivery seems out of place on this tender ballad, lending an unneeded dark quality to the song.  Iverson's intricate piano work would have been a welcome substitute, thus retaining the romantic mood.  Ultimately Lewis possesses a rock voice, which is best suited to the harder-rocking covers on For All I Care. I could not help but miss the group's stripped down work, minus vocals, as was beautifully displayed on their acclaimed 2007 release Prog.  

With For All I Care, The Bad Plus continues its mission to expand the world of jazz by infusing harder rock and some pop into the mix.  While jazz purists may remain skeptical, they should still listen to the trio's work.  After all, they have avoided the "smooth jazz" trap that many artists have fallen into, instead forging their own path. For that alone, The Bad Plus should be commended.  Their latest CD contains that maverick spirit, but it's questionable whether vocals really enhance their already superb artistry.  Lewis shines on a few tracks, but the band's furious, complicated musicianship kept me listening. Listen to For All I Care, but do explore their back catalog of albums to experience the dizzying, challenging, yet ultimately enjoyable work of The Bad Plus.

For more information, visit the Bad Plus's official website and MySpace page.

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About Kit O'Toole

  • I’ve tried for years to “get” the Bad Plus and each time I listen to them I come away with the feeling that it’s mostly a gimmick. To be sure, they’ve got a real muscular rhythm section, but simply adapting rock songs to jazz and playing them loud doesn’t qualify for pushing out the boundaries of jazz to me. Brad Mehldau covers a lot of contemporary pop songs, too, but seems to do a lot more creatively with them. And e.s.t. did a better job of mixing rock sensibilities into jazz.

    This ain’t nothing on you, Kit, you did a great job with the review. And Wendy Lewis really is a fine vocalist. I’m just not buying the often-touted line that TBP is all that.

  • I look at them more as an adventurous rock band, rather than a true jazz group. I get more of a rock feeling and attitude than the swing of jazz. And their catalog is ridiculously spotty – the first album is pretty solid, but from there, each album has highs and lows that make them difficult to sit through in their entirety. But they’re fun, in general, so I consider myself a fan, if kind of a judgmental, fair-weather fan, I guess.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    Though I can definitely see both Tom & Pico’s POVs,
    Prog was a bit refreshing for me in the sense that it wasn’t necessarily boundary pushing but that it has a fusion feel played by Jazz musicians. So, for me, it was coming from the opposite spectrum which I really dug. IMHO, TBP are very accessible and not as intimidating as pure or experimental Jazz but they are still very talented.
    I’m looking forward to hearing new material especially with a vocalist.

  • Thanks for commenting on my review, everybody. I agree with some comments in that I don’t like 100% of the Bad Plus’s stuff. I give them credit for doing something a bit different and not bowing to the “smooth jazz” trend that has been dominant of late.

    And Pico, no offense taken! Thanks for the compliment. 🙂

  • before the release i saw a video of them working on “Long Distance Runaround”….and just knew i’d pick this one up. i’m really a sucker for tunes being stretched into different shapes.

    nice review.

    p.s. smooth jazz is a dominant trend? really?

  • Thanks for commenting, Mark. I guess my smooth jazz comment is a bit of editorializing from me. I’ll spare you seeing me get up on my soapbox, but I get annoyed at some of the stuff that’s considered “jazz” sometimes. Years ago I went to a concert that had Michael Franks, Spyro Gyra,and I think the Yellowjackets on the bill. I was there to see Franks, but was also interested in seeing Spyro Gyra. By the end I was so frustrated with those two groups–here were these wonderful players, but much of their music resembled stuff you would play in the background at dinner. One song sounded exactly like another, they certainly didn’t swing, and the tunes just went nowhere. I really get frustrated with that kind of music, particularly since I know these artists can play WAY better than that. To me, that isn’t pure jazz.

    Whew, I’ll step down from the soapbox now. Sorry for the lecture! Thanks again–I’m glad you liked the article, and I’ll be curious to hear what you think of the Bad Plus’s new album.

  • uh oh…i think i own a Spyro Gyra record.

    i do! Morning Dance. chalk it up to youthful indiscretion.

    i know what you mean though. mostly, i don’t think there’s a huge intersection between fans of Coltrane vs fans of say…Kenny G. i guess i just don’t sweat it.

  • Mark, I wouldn’t even admit to hearing Spyro Gyra et alone actually owning one of their records!

  • the funny thing is that i think i bought that record the same day as Weather Report’s 8:30.

  • Aah, the enigma that is Saleski’s mind!

  • Beth Ann

    I think it would be cool if the music played while I read your review of the album. Oh, I mean, CD. Yeah, right. I’m not old.

    Thanks for rating all this music…it’s nice to have an expert to depend on.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    Aah, the enigma that is Saleski’s mind!

    Yup, from Weather Report straight to Poison… (Over Genesis,mind you)*Cringe*

    Just Kidding:)

  • Hi Beth Ann–thanks for commenting! I wish I could have included a YouTube link so you could hear samples from the album, but I found nothing (apparently they don’t have their own “channel” yet). You can listen to samples at their MySpace page. Check it out!

  • Oh no, Spyro Gyra AND the Weather Report! *cringe* Just kidding! The Weather Report was great, though. I have heard a smooth jazz version of “Birdland” which, quite frankly, sickened me. Yes, I need to get over this, I know. 😉