If you’re not a jazz aficionado, writing about jazz is no easy task. What if you reference the wrong musicians, the wrong albums? What if you can’t follow the time changes, or you identify the wrong sub-genres? How will you ever show your face in the jazz department of your college radio station again? Fear not, my insecure indie-rock-lover-who-wants-to-branch-out. Throw on the new Bad Plus record, Give, and breathe a sigh of relief. Not only do you get great jazz from a great jazz trio, but you also get the Pixies and Black Sabbath. Three talented musicians bring you classic jazz conventions and a whole lot of pop’s melodic and rhythmic sensibilities, and they do so without sacrificing the integrity of their genre.
Give is the band’s second full length album on Columbia Records and their third album overall. The Bad Plus, consisting of piano player Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson, and drummer David King, officially formed in 2000. However, they played together in the late ’80s and early ’90s in various free jazz groups. They all had their own bands and reportedly got together because “we were all fans of each other.” In 2000, they released an eponymous debut on an independent label. By 2002, they’d piqued the interest of Columbia. These Are the Vistas (2003) marked their major label debut. The record was an instant success on college radio and with jazz listeners in the know. Featuring such covers as “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, “Heart of Glass”, and Aphex Twin’s “Flim”, as well as great original material, the album endeared itself to audiences spanning musical genres.
Give promises to do the same. “1979 Semi-Finalist” starts off the album at a swaggering pace and, according to the artists, tells the story of Bernie the bowler, an athlete who didn’t quite make it to the finals. King’s drumming carries that big ’80s sound, and Iverson’s piano invokes images of Bernie striding across the bowling alley parking lot.
“Cheney Piñata” is an upbeat, Latin-tinged tune with a playful melody and impressive percussion from King. And the image of the VP as a hollow, paper-mache construction filled with candy is too much fun to miss.
“Street Woman”, an Ornette Coleman cover, features incredible bass playing from Anderson, and a very non-jazzy drum part. King plays like he’s in a rock band and just wails. None of the parts in this song match up. Each member of the trio sounds like he’s in his own room banging out his own composition. Afterward, they all just slapped it together. The ensuing chaos is difficult to listen to.
“And Here We Test Our Powers of Observation” shows the band at its most rockin’. King and Anderson’s rhythms create a driving groove that almost overpowers Iverson’s piano melody. Their competition gives the song an accelerated and intense pace.
“Velouria” is an excellent rendition of the Pixies tune — the Pixies on a grand scale with majestic piano playing and more rock beats than I’ve heard in any jazz tune before. The song’s sweeping finish would fill a concert hall and leave the audience breathless and blown backwards.
“Layin’ a String for the Higher-Self State Line” races along at a galloping pace and has the spirit of a speedy getaway from a bank heist. Much fun. “Neptune (The Planet)”, according to the band, shows “the eighth body sing[ing] a noble melody for all sentient life.” The track also serves as the album’s smoky lounge song.
Give ends on an outrageous note — with a cover of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man”. If you thought “Smells Like Teen Spirit” sounded odd as a jazz tune, wait until you hear Iverson banging out this classic metal song’s unmistakable hook. King and Anderson pound out deadly rhythms, and “Iron Man” becomes operatic. Ozzy should be proud of this unique interpretation of his masterpiece.
With only three members, the Bad Plus is still jazz on a grand scale. At times, the band sounds totally incongruous, off in their own sound-proof studios beating their instruments into submission. At other times, the three come together to produce a sophisticated and ceaselessly pleasurable jazz/pop synthesis.