I keep waiting for the Bad Plus to screw up. Could it be that For All I Care was the closest they'll ever get?
In 2003, I almost didn't take to the Bad Plus just because of their name. I thought the name was terrible. Then again, I don't care for most band names. If I didn't allow myself to listen to bands with silly names, I would have missed out on some of my favorites. Their major label debut These Are the Vistas, I thought, more than made up for this silly name. Their indelible mark on the jazz piano trio format, their oddball choice of covers, their surprisingly strong originals - they were a terrific package deal for me. And I keep watching, waiting for them to screw up. With that, don't judge Made Possible on its name. It sounds like some public television joke, but their stride remains unbroken. Could it be that their much-maligned covers album For All I Care is the closest these guys will come to screwing up?
One fun part of following the Bad Plus's career is anticipating what goofy covers they will choose to do next. Nirvana, the Pixies, Aphex Twin, Rush, Tears for Fears all wrung into progressive jazz, that was fun. But by the time they recorded 2008's For All I Care, an album of only covers - a disparate collection of ones at that - with guest vocalist Wendy Lewis singing most of them, a number of fans and critics thought this was a misstep. Many a lukewarm review took what was once perceived as a quirky charm and reassessed it as a gimmick that went off the deep end. Even though it bore all the hallmarks of a great Bad Plus album (I enjoyed it, though I rarely listen to it these days), the band nevertheless heeded the call to incorporate more originals into their future albums. Two years later, Never Stop arrived with nothing but originals. They do almost the same thing for Made Possible, an album of eight originals and one cover.
The nice thing about the Bad Plus is that, even with a shift in focus such as this, that focus remains sharp. They keep summoning the strangest little melodies out of thin air, twisting them into your ear, guaranteeing their safekeeping within your brain. All three of them compose, but the origin of each tune is never obvious. There's never any moment of "oh, this one must be written by the drummer, and that one by the bassist." Nope, they all seem to eerily share the same strengths when writing their own music. There are even some new sounds that make their subtle debut for the Bad Plus. Don't worry, it's nothing as daring as Bob Dylan strapping on an electric. If you play Made Possible at low volume on your work computer, you may not even notice these ornamentals.
For instance, "Re-Elect That" concludes with some synth noodling reminiscent of an old school Nintendo melody. Of course, the song is in no way based on this. What comes before it is a bit technical, obtuse...brainy. It still sticks to you. When "Sing for a Silver Dollar" falls away at the halfway point, you really aren't prepared for what could fill all the dead air. This turns out to be the kind of electronic drumbeat one hears when they hit the quanitfy button during a jungle beat - or the sound of someone accidentally sitting on the spacebar of a typewriter. As mock feedback carries the song back to its straightaway pop beat, one shudders to think about how the Bad Plus won't get away with this without a severe tongue-lashing - from their fans and enemies.
But you mustn't be tricked into forgetting that Made Possible is terribly infectious. Dave King's "I Want To Feel Good, Part 2", a sequel to a song on King's first solo album Indelicate in case you were wondering, is undeniably snappy. Reid Anderons's "Seven Minute Mind", for all it's metric tricks, gives an engaging piano and bass figure. It's problematic to tap your foot to it, but I promise you that you won't mind a bit. The final two tracks make the Bad Plus a class act all the way (not that they needed such a coda). If the fourteen-minute mood-jerker "In Stitches" is the album's climax, then their cover of the late Paul Motian's "Victoria" is the falling action, sending the album to bed. Many a pundit will still allow themselves to become wet hens in the presence of a Blad Plus album, and that's just very unfortunate. Taken at face value, Made Possible is as great as anything else they've done...and they've done quite a bit.