The Bad Plus: Prog

The Bad Plus
Heads Up International

You can blame it all on anti-piracy software.

For a few years now, the Bad Plus have been riding on a type of hipster popularity that eludes most modern jazz outfits. Restraining from extended jams, the Bad Plus have won the hearts of the rock community for doing drastic, radical re-workings of pop songs in a jazz-trio format, all while retaining the bite of the original numbers. On their stellar debut, the 2003 breakthrough These Are the Vistas, they covered Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” right along-side Blondie’s immortal “Heart of Glass”. One year later, they released their equally-successful follow-up effort, Give, which included radical reinterpretations of Ornette Coleman, the Pixies, and Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man”, which rocked just as hard as when Ozzy was singing it. All the while, the trio of Ethan Iverson on piano, Reid Anderson on bass, and David King on drums worked out a healthy amount of wildly diverse original compositions as well, ranging from rock-influenced mid-tempo jams (“1972 Bronze Medalist”) to Latin-influenced numbers (“Cheney Piñata”), and infectious feel-good boogie-jazz songs (“Layin’ a Strip for the Higher-Self State Line”). Their live shows were becoming the stuff of legend, and the Plus’ future seemed nice and bright.

Until 2005 rolled around.

That year brought forth their third album, Suspicious Activity? which was a slight departure from the band. Perhaps due to the scorn of hardcore jazz purists (who never liked the group from the get-go), the album featured only one cover — “(Theme From) Chariots of Fire” — but also some of the Plus’ most eclectic original offerings to date, even if said songs were largely low- to mid-tempo this time around. Yet their label, Columbia, issued the album with Copy Protection Software (which was all the rage at the time), a move that was totally unbeknownst by the band. Not only did they not know that their label had done this until after the album’s release, but being savvy enough to know that this spy ware-implementing “safety measure” was nothing but trouble (along with their displeasure over the label’s very haphazard marketing plan for Suspicious), the band suddenly packed up and left Columbia.

Two years later and on their own label, the Bad Plus return with Prog, and they burst out of the gate like they have nothing to lose. Naturally, people will want to know what crazy covers the band does this time around, and here the Plus does not disappoint. The album opens with another head-scratcher of a song that works surprisingly in the group’s hands: Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”. The group winds the synth-pop hit down a few notches, turning it into a clam, lazy, Sunday afternoon kind-of groove. Getting a similar treatment is the lovely Bacharach/David classic “The Guy’s in Love with You”, hitting a beautiful piano crescendo into the chorus each time. The hazy romantic feel of the original is entirely intact, with the band showing fantastic restraint by letting the song’s melody ride itself out to the blissful end.

Blissful, however, is hardly a term when describing what will no-doubt be the most talked-about song on the record, a faithful re-working of Rush’s “Tom Sawyer”. After tackling “Smells like Teen Spirit” and “Iron Man” with spectacular success, “Tom Sawyer” — recorded with the same amount of energy as the prog-rock original — feels like the band is, for the first time, playing it safe. There’s no flourishes, no down-tempo changes or Iverson going crazy on the keys (that’s something he saves for the original tune “The World is the Same”). It’s just a by-the-numbers take on the classic. In many regards, there’s nothing wrong with that (after all, such an approach worked when they were covering Aphex Twin), but given their stellar history of at least finding some new element to add to the mix (such as the creepy off-note tinkering they lavished on their net-only cover of the Police’s “Every Breath You Take”), it’s a bit of a let down to know that the only risk that the band took with the song was simply choosing it as a cover (though it is refreshing to hear King let loose while doing his Neil Peart impersonation).

In the long run, however, any complaints about the lack of dynamics in “the big cover” are laid to rest by the stellar originals the band unleashes. After experimenting with form during the eight-minute jams of Suspicious Activity?, the Plus outdoes themselves by doing two nine-minute-long efforts (both of which, oddly, clock in at exactly nine minutes and twelve seconds). The first of which, “Physical Cities”, is a badass prog-jazz crunch that rides on one of Anderson’s best basslines to date. The song switches back and forth between a rubbery “verse” section and harsher, staccato “chorus”, best differentiated by King’s drumming, which goes from typical jazz foreplay to 4/4 rock cymbal-crashing at the drop of a hat. The transitions between these sections can be a bit jarring at moments, but it the song’s nine-minutes fly by due to the Plus’ tight energy, which keeps the momentum rolling the whole time. The other, the aforementioned “The World is the Same”, was written by Anderson but has Iverson’s fingerprints all over it, hocking out high-end clouds of ivory notes at near machine-gun rates with almost no discernable effort on his part. Also worth noting is the seductive “Giant” and the truly democratic “Thriftstore Jewelry”, which gives each member a chance to shine, going as far as to stop half-way through to give King his own crazed drum solo.

While the fourth cover on the album features one of the most powerful buildups in band’s canon (David Bowie’s “Life on Mars”), it’s the closing original that proves to be the album’s highlight: “1980 World Champion,” a fitting end to their “Athlete Trilogy” (which started with Vistas‘s “1972 Bronze Medalist” and continued with Give‘s “1979 Semi-Finalist”). “1980” is the most up-tempo of the three, riding on a thrilling bounce that’s largely driven by King and Iverson, concluding with the sound of applause, cheers, and a strange spoken-word recording of something that’s barely audible in the background (marking the first use of vocals of any sort in a Bad Plus song).

“1980 World Champion” proves to be a fantastic finish to what is arguably the best album of their career. In truth, the Bad Plus has yet to release a truly flawless LP, but each new record shows that time and touring has only made the trio tighter and better. For an album whose ten tracks clock in at over an hour, it’s absolutely amazing how fast those 60 minutes fly. The thing that’s more astonishing? The fact that they’re only going to get better from here.

RATING 8 / 10