When The Bad Plus made their major-label debut with 2003’s
These Are the Vistas, the piano trio instantly became the
talk of the jazz world. These Are challenged the concept of
jazz by boldly trespassing into rock and pop idioms. The trio
managed to create an album that defied genre classification, with
spirited originals and mean rock covers that included
Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The trio
then spent the year ruthlessly touring, appearing everywhere from
the prestigious Village Vanguard to The Bowery Ballroom, New
York’s indie haven. Exciting some and inciting others, The
Bad Plus became a quick success story, attracting listeners foreign
to the small jazz community.
A year later, the trio has released a follow-up, Give.
The album begins where These Are left off. Rather than risk
their sound, The Bad Plus created basically the same album all over
again. The originals are — for the most part — fun and
quirky, dabbling in different genres and coming across as in your
face. The cover selection is, yet again, bizarre, including Ornette
Coleman’s “Street Woman,” The Pixies’s
“Velouria” and Black Sabbath’s “Iron
Man.” The album seems to be held together not by the strength
of the music, but by the personalities of the musicians
Rock-shuffle “1979 Semi-Finalist” begins the album
on a low note. The song lacks any hint of direction and wanders on
a little too long. The steadfast harmony and mid-tempo rhythm
doesn’t help the cause very much either. The Cuban-tinged
“Cheney Piñata” follows, bringing an almost
surreal aspect to the recording. The tune can’t really be
taken seriously and seems like a joke from the start. Pianist Ethan
Iverson doesn’t have the technique of Chucho Valdés or
the Latin edge of Tito Puente. and comes off flat.
Give isn’t bad, though, despite its rough start.
There are a few compositional gems and moments of inspiration that
allow the listener to understand what the fuss is all about. The
literary-inspired “Frog and Toad” is playful and
altogether enjoyable as bassist Reid Anderson matches
Iverson’s inquisitive melodies with curiosity and charm.
The Pixies “Velouria” contains moments both pleading
and beautiful. David King’s stomping bass coupled with
Iverson’s Ravelian muted tinkering is captivating.
“Neptune (The Planet)” similarly illustrates the
trio’s assertive sensitive side.
While These Are the Vistas was exciting for its musical
implications, Give is much more questionable. At what point
does The Bad Plus simply become a novelty act? If they want to
continue receiving the attention they’ve garnered, something
has to change. It won’t be long before The Bad Plus are no
longer considered cutting-edge, and when that time comes, they
better hope they’re not simply considered bad.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.