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.
Lewis 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.