To a reviewer weaned on indie rock, a jazz album can bring about a heap of trepidation. Sure, it sounds cool, but is said reviewer (ahem) hep enough to know what exactly is going on, and can he deliver the goods without sounding like a complete ignoramus? Fortunately, such fears are groundless when the jazz album in question is one like the Bad Plus' Columbia Records debut, These Are the Vistas, a fun and decidedly unsnobby listen for both jazzophiles and newbies alike.
The Bad Plus (Wisconsin-based pianist Ethan Iverson, and Minnesotans bassist Reid Anderson and drummer David King) spent much of the '90s in the rarefied air of the New York arts scene. King was in the Happy Apple Jazz Combo, while Iverson directed the Mark Morris Dance Group. But based on the band's laid-back album-sleeve photo -- King flaunts a knit cap and a tattoo while Anderson sports a pair of sunglasses Bono would find ostentatious -- in addition to the music they create, the Bad Plus are not only not snobby, but are the kind of guys who are most at east thumbing their noses at the stuffed-shirt jazz establishment. Good thing they've got the chops to back up the boisterous attitude.
Opener "Big Eater" sets up The Bad Plus modus operandi. Bassist Anderson keeps his rhythm section partner King from drumming himself into outer space while pianist Iverson runs roughshod over the both of them. To term King's drumming as frenetic is to not do it justice; he makes so much joyful noise he sounds as if he sprouted additional arms.
"Keep the Bugs off Your Glass and the Bears off Your Ass" is every bit the trucker anthem you'd expect it to be, if truckers listened to National Public Radio. An apt, if obscure, comparison would be if Tom Waits' current incarnation re-recorded his jazzbo interlude "Diamonds on My Windshield" (off 1974's The Heart of Saturday Night). King's drums again attempt to lead the song astray, but Anderson's bass, replete with a vaguely Eastern-sounding solo, ropes King back in, and the trio reaches the finish line together.
Also of note is "1972 Bronze Medalist", which will bring a smile to any listener's face with its instrumental tale of Jacques, who as the liner notes tell it, won the medal in question in weightlifting and now spends his day at a French beach regaling children with his tales of bravado. With Iverson's lighthearted piano slip sliding over Anderson's deliberate bass, one can almost imagine the tune as a soundtrack to a charming animated children's movie. We're talking jazz that even the most novice listener can appreciate. More introspective listeners would do well to seek out the redemptive "Everywhere You Turn", "Guilty" (as weighty as its name implies), and the 8-minute long closer, "Silence Is the Question".
While the band shows their sense of humor and technical prowess in the above cuts, all of which are originals (with songwriting credits spread among the band's three members), it's the cover tunes on These Are the Vistas that will get the hard-line purists up in arms while bringing new ears to the genre. Chief among them is Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit", which shows the band's understanding of Cobain's sense of melody and his snarling punk fury. The trio holds it together for a verse or so before breaking free and sending the tune spiraling into orbit. Before the tune completely shatters, though, Iverson (who legend has it never heard the Nirvana version of the song) glues it all back together with a thunderous piano riff that aims to silence any critics.
Meanwhile, the band turns Aphex Twin's "Flim" into a delicate carousel tune, then deconstructs Blondie's "Heart of Glass" with a malevolent glee not found in the previous semi-reverent covers. These Are the Vistas's best joke is the band's playing the final verse from "Heart of Glass"'s straight (after having mangled it for the first three minutes) before King pounds it into submission with his drum kit. This is a band that is not afraid to show itself having fun.
Overly self-serious jazz snobs may disagree, but These Are the Vistas is the rare jazz album that will fit alongside the Coltrane in your CD collection as well as it will the Cobain. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to 21st century jazz.