If the lay-listener were to know just one thing about the modern jazz trio the Bad Plus, it’s that they have a knack for choosing covers that are borderline gimmicky. From their first stabs at Blondie, Aphex Twin, and Nirvana to an entire album of covers named after a Nirvana lyric, each new release from these wise-asses had me guessing what they were going to tackle next. Then, somewhere around the turn of the decade, the band decided to focus on original material. This was a good move since, 1) their originals are worth more than just a cursory listen (check out Dave King’s “Anthem for the Earnest” on Suspicious Activity? for a prime example), and 2) all three members could write. So write they did. Never Stop, Made Possible, Inevitable Western, and their collaboration with saxophonist Joshua Redman all focused on original material.
Only for a university-commissioned reading of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring did they break from this new trend. When I received my copy of It’s Hard in the mail one day, I honestly thought for a second that the Bad Plus went and covered what was supposed to be the Who’s final album from 1982. That would have been a gas. Alas, it’s just another album of covers — some jazz, some pop, some indie rock, one county number, all through the unmistakable Bad Plus filter.
Why the switch back to familiar territory? Drummer Dave King is quoted in the press release as saying, “After several years of focusing largely on original music, we thought it would be creatively challenging to return to arranging music that’s not ours.” This could be code for, “People stopped paying attention to us when we kept recording our own stuff.” It’s Hard makes quite a bid for your attention right off the bat by covering the Yeah Yeah Yeahs first. After “Maps”, the trio walks the timeline back to varying degrees of yesteryear with Peter Gabriel’s “Games Without Frontiers”, Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time”, and Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line”. This last golden oldie may sound harmonically sarcastic to anyone unaccustomed to the Bad Plus’s style. Pianist Ethan Iverson’s goofy treatment of the occasional flatted-third will bristle the very same country fans who thought that Ween weren’t being sincere back in the ’90s. The same goes for the chorus of “Time After Time”; the band’s unison shift in the melodic phrasing sounds like they’re wrestling with Lauper’s inner circus clown — if such a thing exists.
The further you make it through It’s Hard, the more it sounds like a braggart who set his or her iPod on shuffle. There’s “Alfombra Mágica” by Bill McHenry, “Broken Shadows” by Ornette Coleman, “The Robots” by Kraftwerk, “Don’t Dream It’s Over” by Crowded House, “The Beautiful Ones” by Prince, and “Mandy” made popular by Barry Manilow. Their second main bid for street cred comes in the form of TV on the Radio’s “Staring at the Sun”. Yet your opinion about these various acts will not be what determines your opinion of It’s Hard overall, it will be your opinion of how entertaining the Bad Plus manage to make it all sound.
It’s Hard‘s accompanying press release mentions that the band was slated to give a complete performance of Ornette Coleman’s Science Fiction in Chicago in early September. Apart from this delightful piece of news, it’s becoming more and more difficult over time to be surprised by the Bad Plus’s choice of covers. This isn’t to say that the Bad Plus has completely lost the ability to surprise us. Though they remain a vital game piece in the modern jazz chessboard, an album like It’s Hard won’t help them zoom to the other side.