The Bad Plus – It’s Hard – Okeh/Sony Music

The Bad Plus deliver an all-covers album with lots of surprises.

The Bad Plus – It’s Hard [TrackList follows] – Okeh/Sony Music 88985 337142, 40:56 [8/26/16] *****:

(Reid Anderson – double bass/ Ethan Iverson – piano/David King – drums)

What would you think of an all-covers album which includes music from Barry Manilow, Peter Gabriel, Johnny Cash and other tunes from outside the typical jazz realm? Some could try such a broad mixture, and fail. But with the Bad Plus, the result is the band’s 11th studio recording, It’s Hard, the threesome’s first all-covers project and another stellar and adventurous release. Those untutored with this trio’s eclectic stretch of influences might consider a 40-minute, 11-track collection of interpretations of music external to the jazz domain to be somewhat of a stunt. That kind of criticism has been leveled at bassist Reid Anderson, pianist Ethan Iverson and drummer David King since the trio’s major label 2003 debut, These Are the Vistas, which had audacious versions of Nirvana’s grunge-rock anthem “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Blondie’s “Heart of Glass.” Anyone who has spent time with the Bad Plus realize they are way beyond any sense of novelty. In reality, the Bad Plus are confident and able to deviate from the precincts of standard jazz, and can make such endeavors refreshing and appealing, especially to post-modernists who don’t mind musicians who cross so-called boundaries.

The material on It’s Hard ranges from tilted, avant-jazz inclinations to lyrical moments which flit with poetic beauty. The Bad Plus commence with a twist-and-tumble adaptation of “Maps,” from the indie rockers Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Anderson, Iverson and King sustain a staccato, de-constructing rhythmic pace which lets listeners know right away there is nonconformist jazz on this album. Another track which maintains a motoric deportment is the Bad Plus’ rendition of Kraftwerk’s “The Robots.” Kraftwerk’s 1978 song empathized a digital, all-electronic and icy stance with a dance-ready slant. In the hands of the Bad Plus, however, the tune becomes a knotty creation with veering time changes, nearly discordant elements and a central melodic line which appears, disappears, rears up again, and so on. One group which certainly deserves the Bad Plus treatment is iconoclastic art-rockers TV on the Radio. The Bad Plus re-think TV on the Radio’s most recognized number, “Staring at the Sun.” The Bad Plus adjust the tempo drive, although King upholds the cymbal-heavy percussion which TV on the Radio employed. A lighter touch is noticed in a switch from the electric guitar used by TV on the Radio, to Iverson’s acoustic piano, which heightens the melodic quality and accentuates the tune’s emotive core.

Two of the stand-outs come early in the CD program. First there is Peter Gabriel’s 1980 near-hit “Games without Frontiers,” a memorable art-rock song which melded childhood ingenuousness with an ominous tone. King, Iverson and Anderson retain Gabriel’s juxtaposition (without benefit of lyrics…no easy feat), while augmenting the arrangement with new components, particularly King’s approach to mutable rhythmic parts which push “Games without Frontiers” into bolder improvisational areas. One of the longest cuts is Lauper’s “Time After Time,” which is inspired by Miles Davis’ 1985 take. The Pad Plus blend a lingering motif with other musical flourishes which alter the song’s original rueful aspect into an intrepid and absorbing structure. The Bad Plus don’t lose sight of the basic theme, but provide a slightly different psychological curve.

There are two compositions which are far outside of jazz. Ever wonder how a Johnny Cash country cut would sound like if done by a jazz band? Wonder no more. The Bad Plus keep things shuffling along—albeit not straightforwardly—with an almost-teetering rendering of Cash’s country-pop single, “I Walk the Line.” This will never be heard on country radio, and though it has some toe-tapping cadences, the tempo changes will have the toes moving at an odd meter. The record’s most charming interpretation comes from Manilow’s back catalog, the overly-dramatic but indelibly huge 1975 smash, “Mandy.” The Bad Plus ditch the strings, polished production and overt heartbreak, and zero in on the excellent melody, pushing Manilow’s pop song into the territory of jazz balladry. Or at least that’s where the arrangement begins: near the end, the Bad Plus wind up the whole thing several notches, close to chaos, as far from a lost-romance ballad as it’s possible to get.

There is unforeseen poignancy regarding the trio’s reworking of Prince’s 1984 tune, “The Beautiful Ones.” The Bad Plus taped this before Prince’s untimely passing, but since It’s Hard was issued after Prince’s death, the Bad Plus version has a larger impression of appraisal, of re-evaluating what Prince created. Not everything is from the spheres of pop, rock or radio-friendly fare. The Bad Plus conclude It’s Hard with a tender presentation of Ornette Coleman’s “Broken Shadows,” which Coleman did in the late ‘60s. Here, the Bad Plus keep the music clear-cut and elemental, making this piece the most heartfelt and ambient of the 11 tracks. The Bad Plus has always persistently shaken things up (from doing Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” to performing Black Sabbath). It’s Hard fits alongside the Bad Plus’ modus operandi: staying the course by not staying the course.

TrackList: Maps; Games without Frontiers; Time After Time; I Walk the Line; Alfombra Magica; The Beautiful Ones; Don’t Dream It’s Over; Staring at the Sun; Mandy; The Robots; Broken Shadows.

—Doug Simpson

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