March 6, 2003

Test Spin: The Bad Plus

Print More

The concept behind These Are the Vistas may or may not sound appealing to you: a piano-bass-drums trio plays new-jazz originals and reinterpretations of non-jazz classics, without a single overdub. Even if you agree this could be interesting, it requires musicians of a high caliber to pull it off. Whether these three qualify is one of many questions that arise while listening to The Vistas.

Another question is one of influence. Jazz (which is what this seems to want to be) has long been held as one of the sacredest of genres. This is especially evident in the sub-genres it has spawned and inspired. The Bad Plus demonstrate the tricky business of a genre being influenced by its own offspring — call it post-modern genre incest. Don’t get me wrong; innovation necessitates this exact sort of exploration. However, only drummer David King sounds comfortable with the experimentation, incorporating electronica elements, all on an acoustic kit. He salvages the cover of Aphex Twin’s “Flim” from being a complete waste with his inventive embellishment and breakbeat stylings. Ethan Iverson’s piano preserves the superb melody, but adds nothing to it, essentially losing a battle between man and machine (or maybe just man and Richard D. James).

Yet another question: When did Nirvana covers become requisite on jazz albums? I’ve heard at least four jazz renditions of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in the past few years, and this is the worst of a bad lot. Reid Anderson adds some adept bass work, but fails to make the song anything more than an answer to the question, “Why didn’t Kurt Cobain play piano?” Throughout the album, Iverson too often reverts to pedantic scale-running and rarely achieves the forward-looking adventurousness for which the band seems to strive.

You may think it wrong of me to not mention a single original composition on The Vistas, but it seems inevitable when a band chooses to overshadow mediocre, yet ignorable originals with mediocre, yet recognizable covers. (Soapbox position: Jazz won’t evolve by relying on rock covers to gain attention.) And the final question: the name. It just begs for bad press and worse puns (here’s just one: Bad + Jazz = Bad Plus).

Archived article by Ben Kupstas