The Bad Plus hovers in a singular and fascinating space between indie rock, postmodern jazz and intelligent pop. The trio’s four highly acclaimed albums and accompanying reputation for adventurous live performances serve as a testament to their progressive, highly intuitive sensibilities. In less than a decade, bassist Reid Anderson, keyboardist Ethan Iverson and drummer David King have forced critics, fans and everyone in between to re-think their perceptions of jazz, rock and music in general. The Los Angeles Times ranks the Plus “among the potential leaders of what might be called the Nu Jazz movement – an eclectically blended, acoustically framed, dynamically powerful variation on mainstream jazz.” Rolling Stone, meanwhile, heralded them in more simple terms: “…bad to the bone, hot players with hard-rock hearts…”
The Bad Plus makes its debut on Heads Up International through their own Do the Math Records imprint with the May 8, 2007, release of Prog – an album that continues on the iconoclastic trajectory of stealing from the most diverse and unlikely sources and forging a sound that defies any easy definitions or categories.
“Like everything we do, this record brings together a lot of different influences, without drawing any lines around one style or another,” says Anderson. “We don’t create barriers. It’s all brought together with a very open mind. We’ll try anything, as long as it makes good music.”
Prog opens with a melodic yet churning rendition of the Tears for Fears 1985 synth-pop classic, “Everybody Wants To Rule the World,” a track whose arrangement juxtaposes lush piano lines with throbbing bass and drum undercurrents.
“World” is the first of four covers included in the ten-song set. The trio’s take on David Bowie’s classic “Life on Mars” is part atonal rock, part symphony, part cabaret jazz – a track that’s melodic one minute and bombastic the next. Further into the set, their reading of Rush’s art-rock anthem “Tom Sawyer” opens with the well-known riffs and melody line originally crafted by Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson, but interjects some frenetic piano and drum combinations along the way that take the song to an even more heady place than the original. As with the Tears for Fears cover, Burt Bacharch’s “This Guy’s in Love with You” gets under way in melodic fashion, but Anderson, Iverson and King – individually and as a unit – experiment with tempo and dynamics to stretch the song’s sensibilities to a point that redefines the essence of the song.
“We believe in taking a song and looking at it from as many angles as possible," says Anderson. “We try to make the covers our own. It isn't a matter of playing the song; its a matter of reinventing the song."
Along with the intriguing covers are some edgy, as well as gorgeous, original compositions contributed by all three band members. Early in the sequence, the energy level spikes dramatically in “Physical Cities,” a driving and percussive track penned by Anderson. “Cities” features a serpentine interplay among all three players and closes with a hammering, machine-gun riff that devolves into a thundering atonal crescendo.
Iverson’s “Mint” follows a tempo that is churning and elastic, yet never sacrifices its melodic element. Anderson’s “Giant” is a smoky track with a haunting bass riff that permeates – but always allows room for piano lines that are at times minimal, and at times ornate. The result is simultaneously classical, jazzy pop-shaded and lush.
“1980 World Champions,” penned by King, is an upbeat closer that rides atop a consistently driving backbeat – until the final seconds – with sufficient room for Anderson and Iverson to explore all kinds of melodic and harmonic nuances.
In the final analysis, the work of The Bad Plus is anything but background music, says Anderson. “We’re making music to engage the audience,” he says, “and to challenge the audience and ourselves with an energy aimed at everyone involved having a mutual experience through the music.”
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