The Bad Plus, joined by Wendy Lewis – For All I Care – Heads Up HUCD 3148, 49:00 *****:
I suppose one of the best benefits to reviewing CDs is the rare chance to hear something surprising. Even rarer is when you run across something meaningful. “For All I Care,” the latest CD from The Bad Plus manages to be both, surprising and meaningful. It also includes other qualities like smart, accomplished, and maybe even ironic. If you aren’t familiar with this group, The Bad Plus is a standard configuration of the piano jazz trio—piano, bass, and drums. Their usual approach in music is to take standards from other musical genres and reinterpret into a progressive jazz, bordering on the avant-garde, setting. In “For All I Care” they have appropriated pop and rock standards from the 70s and 80s (along with a few 20th Century classical pieces), and they have invited a singer to the endeavor, Wendy Lewis, an indie-rock vocalist from Minneapolis.
All three core musicians are first-rate. Pianist Ethan Iverson plays with inventiveness, fire, and a great sense of rhythm bringing out the innate nature of the piano as a percussion instrument. Reid Anderson, on bass and back-up vocals, coaxes fluid and imaginative lines from his instrument. And as for the drummer, David King, I found myself in an unusual situation. The first time I listened to the recording, about halfway through I thought, “Wasn’t there supposed to be a drummer on this?” So I started the CD again and there he was. King, for the most part, deftly avoids the standard role of most drummers. He doesn’t just keep the beat, he plays music. The performance is so well integrated into what the other musicians are doing, that he sometimes disappears into the music. There are few trios that are this coordinated and complementary to each other. My only criticism of the drums is that occasionally he sometimes sounds as if he’s playing in another room. The sound of the piano and drums were perfectly handled, but the drums tended to sound a bit distant and muffled. Wendy Lewis is a great addition to the mix. More rock than jazz in her approach to the vocals, she brings an earnestness and weight to each song. There’s no pretense here, only honest emotions and straightforward performances. This is also the first time The Bad Plus have used a vocalist for one of their projects. To my ears, this is a superb match and I hope they continue to collaborate.
The choice of material is perhaps the most controversial. You have to understand that these are serious performances delivered with intensity and conviction, but the original tunes weren’t always intended to be the same as we find here. In covering the Bee Gees’ “How Deep is Your Love,” gone is the light and frothy original, and now we have a deeper exploration of commitment and true love. It’s a wonder that it works at all. The only one that doesn’t work for me is “Barracuda,” the song by Heart (it didn’t deviate far enough from the original, for my taste), but that’s one out of 12 songs. Nearly every other track is a revelation. Before listening to this, I’d have said that some of these songs couldn’t have been improved over the original versions, like “Lithium,” “Comfortably Numb,” and “Long Distance Runaround,” but The Bad Plus and Wendy Lewis do indeed have something new to say and I loved hearing it.
If this recording has a failing, it may be this choice of material. I can’t but think that the source material is treated perhaps more seriously than it deserves. After all, we’re talking about “Barracuda” and a Bee Gees tune. However, this CD serves as an excellent example of the value in reinterpreting other’s work. In our litigious, collector-minded world, we attach too much importance to original works and vintage artifacts—the idea that only the original creators of a work can render the best and most authentic rendition of that work. But we all know from classical music that usually the best performances of a score come from some measure of objectivity or a new perspective and that’s what is happening in this recording. The Bad Plus delivers new versions, or covers, of familiar tunes that sometimes exceed the originals, and in most cases, this is a good thing—a very good thing. Highly recommended.
2. Comfortably Numb
3. Fém (Etude No. 8)
4. Radio Cure
5. Long Distance Runaround
6. Semi-Simple Variations
7. How Deep is Your Love
9. Lock, Stock, and Teardrops
10. Variation d’Apollon
11. Feeling Yourself Disintegrate
12. Semi-Simple Variations (Alternate Version)
– Hermon Joyner