Weird at My School: The Bad Plus

Michael Dvorak

Michael Dvorak

by DJ El Toro

The intersection of legit jazz -- not that “smooth” crap you always hear in taxis en route to the airport -- and rock ‘n’ roll usually marks some tough terrain. Folks who venture there find themselves on precarious footing. Personally, Ella Fitzgerald’s renditions of Cream and The Beatles amuse my twisted sensibilities, but my boyfriend says listening to the First Lady of Song try to swing “Sunshine of Your Love” is like walking in on your grandmother in, um, an adult situation.

Yet progressive jazz trio The Bad Plus -- who are on tour right now, with a four-night stand in Seattle this week -- have carved out a home in this wilderness. And not by clobbering the source material into submission, either. Listen to them take on catalog favorites like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (on their 2003 full-length These Are the Vistas) or “Karma Police” (a highlight of the hit-or-miss 2005 tribute album Exit Music: Songs with Radio Heads). Their approach is that of the robust mountain goat, navigating new paths through the treacherous peaks and valleys, rather than a bulldozer flattening out all in its path.

In the past, The Bad Plus have been content to sprinkle a handful of such covers on their albums. But with the recent For All I Care, they go hell-for-leather and set aside originals, focusing solely on interpreting the works of others. For an additional twist, their standard line-up of piano, bass and drums is augmented with vocals by Minneapolis alt-rocker Wendy Lewis. As if that wasn’t enough variety, four short pieces by 20th century classical composers like Milton Babbitt and Igor Stravinsky were thrown into the program, too.

Perhaps immersion in all things KEXP has colored my judgment, but my personal favorites among the twelve selections of For All I Care are updates of selections by “core” KEXP artists. The disc opens with a halting reinvention of Nirvana’s “Lithium” that focuses the ear on Kurt Cobain’s lyric in a whole new way. Covers of Wilco’s “Radio Cure” and The Flaming Lips’ “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate” prove equally revelatory.

The Bad Plus - Feeling Yourself Disintegrate

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Thanks to the nimble fingers of pianist Ethan Iverson, “Fém (Etude No. 8)” by avant garde great György Ligeti takes on a syncopated, Latin quality that belies the composer’s Eastern European origins, while Stravinsky’s “Variation d’Apollon” sounds like a Christmas carol that fell in with the wrong crowd.

The classic rock selections don’t hold up quite as well. The interplay between Lewis and Iverson on Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” captures the song’s inherent creepiness without resorting to the bombast of the original. But the slow-core readings of Yes, Heart, and the Bee-Gees start to feel a bit interchangeable, as Lewis repeatedly evokes Beth Gibbons of Portishead minus the hysterical outbursts. But these are small potatoes. For All I Care ranks among the most exciting jazz titles of 2009, regardless. Where Miss Ella faltered, The Bad Plus are fleet of foot.

DJ El Toro is the host of the overnight show In Between Sleep & Reason, Wednesday mornings from 1 AM to 6 AM on KEXP 90.3 FM Seattle and kexp.org. His column, Weird At My School, appears every Monday on the KEXP Blog.

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