The theory behind Herbie Hancock’s 1996 album The New Standard was sound: contemporary pop-rock songs can facilitate jazz improvisation in much the same way as older standards like “Night and Day” and “Body and Soul,” even if their harmonic makeup provides less to work with. But in practice Hancock’s bland renditions of the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” Prince’s “Thieves in the Temple,” and Babyface’s “When Can I See You Again” amounted to just another calculated attempt to attract a younger audience to jazz. And the laid-back soul-jazz vibe of his version of “All Apologies” suggested an utter inability to grasp the dark mood at the core of the Nirvana tune.
None of the recent half-assed, self-conscious simulations of jazz–from Hancock’s flaccid covers of familiar R & B and rock songs to the marriage of jazz elements and club beats brokered by European acts such as St. Germain and Bugge Wesseltoft–has managed to increase the music’s paltry slice of the marketplace, and with good reason. From beboppers incorporating Afro-Caribbean rhythms to Miles Davis borrowing from psychedelic rock, jazz has absorbed new influences most successfully when it sets out to create something new and distinctive. Cassandra Wilson brought a sensual air of anticipation to the Monkees’ “Last Train to Clarksville,” but Ella Fitzgerald just sounded ridiculous stumbling through “Savoy Truffle” in an attempt to win over the kids.
Hancock’s take on Nirvana seems all the more clueless up against the audacious version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” delivered by the Bad Plus–pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson, and drummer Dave King–on their new album, These Are the Vistas. Iverson was largely ignorant of rock groups (including Nirvana) before the Bad Plus started up in 2000, but the drummer and bassist come by their rock influences honestly. Though Anderson has become one of the most important players on the New York jazz scene, he played in rock bands while growing up in Minneapolis. And King never left the Twin Cities, where, in addition to his work with Happy Apple, a jazz trio with an indie rock ethos, he also drums for the rock bands Love-Cars and 12 Rods.
For Hancock “All Apologies” was just a pretty set of chords to tinkle over, but the Bad Plus approaches “Smells Like Teen Spirit” with a conscious awareness of the energy and spirit of the original recording. The musicians aren’t just responding to the melody, they’re making sense of rock dynamics–you can hear it in their recreation of the soft-to-loud leaps of Nirvana’s version, and in the violent glissandos Iverson repeats in the chorus. Although the music on These Are the Vistas is wholly instrumental, the trio provides oblique little narratives for each tune in the album’s liner notes: the original composition “1972 Bronze Medallist,” for instance, is about a fellow named Jacque, who won a weightlifting medal and is now retired in a small seaside town in France, where “every day he walks bare-chested to the beach, medal swinging in time to his proud gait.” Such vignettes help give the rock-trained audience its bearings–these aren’t simply chord patterns to be improvised over, but songs that give voice to a story or a sentiment.
The Bad Plus bills itself as a “power piano trio,” but most of its rock-style intensity comes from King’s pummeling. (Producer Tchad Blake, known for his work with the likes of Sheryl Crow, Pearl Jam, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, and Los Lobos, gives King’s playing a chunky depth without letting it overwhelm the piano and bass.) “Big Eater,” an outsize stomper in 5/4 time, showcases the drummer in all his floor-rumbling glory, while the group’s cover of the Aphex Twin miniature “Flim” shows off his versatility and sense of nuance: as Iverson and Anderson play the tune’s music-box melody in unison, with no variations, King spends four minutes rapping out an ever-changing low-end stutter that hints at but never imitates the frantic drum ‘n’ bass programming of the original. Sometimes he comes off as heavy-handed–on the galloping deconstruction of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” his assault seems to mock the trite melody–but these moments are rare.
King’s bandmates are ace soloists as well–Iverson’s a whiz at two-handed improvisation, playing discrete but related lines on “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “1972 Bronze Medallist,” while Anderson, with his fat, Mingus-like sound and faultless intonation, is extremely lyrical, even with his favored low notes. The players are at their best, however, when they race together as a team, accelerating and decelerating, taking off on sly tangents or leaping into chaos with the kind of intuition and empathy that can only occur in a working group. Like another daring acoustic piano trio, Jason Moran’s Bandwagon, which successfully uses nonjazz sources from Schumann to Afrika Bambaataa, the Bad Plus operates as a unit. De facto leadership doesn’t fall to pianist Iverson, either in choice of repertoire or in featured solos, and the group eschews the standard, tired jazz-combo structure: a string of solos sandwiched between theme statements. On Anderson’s “Keep the Bugs off Your Glass and the Bears off Your Ass” (the title’s a bit of trucker lingo), the pianist and bassist play hot potato with the lengthy, Monkesque melody. Even when Iverson tears into his solo the rhythm section doesn’t recede into the background–there are no walking bass lines or swinging ride-cymbal holding patterns here.
Though most of the press attention has focused on the band’s pop covers (in addition to the Blondie and Nirvana tunes, they’ve also recorded Abba’s “Knowing Me, Knowing You”), their originals are no less adventurous. Anderson’s “Everywhere You Turn” is a pretty ballad that starts as an echoed whisper, as though it’s being played in an empty ballroom. Gradually it builds in volume and intensity, with virtually no melodic variation, then ends suddenly. The blues piece “Guilty” also progresses in an arc–quiet start, furious midsection, concluding hush.
Columbia obviously expects the Bad Plus to attract new fans to jazz–the label has serviced a CD to radio that features five album tracks edited to airplay-friendly lengths. But the qualities that make this album a good bet to snare that elusive youth market–the pop covers, the collar-grabbing energy–are integrated into the band’s aesthetic decisions. There’s nothing glib or easy about the music they make, and they play with a passion missing in much of today’s jazz. Not to mention much of today’s rock.
If you’re reading this on Thursday, April 3, you can catch the Bad Plus in their local debut tonight, at 7 PM, at the Chicago Cultural Center.