A pop hit that used to make you cringe can be downright pleasurable once you no longer live in fear of it every time you leave the house. That’s my theory, anyway, and if it’s not as scientific as intelligent design (I don’t pretend to be as sharp as the monkeys who dreamed that one up), it at least explains why I no longer mind being in a coffee shop or pizzeria and hearing crap I once loathed.
Only someone who liked “25 or 6 to 4,” “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” and “Open Arms” when they were current can be nostalgic about them now; I’m responding to the same songcraft and production that hooked the hoi polloi way back when without feeling like a sucker.
Sometimes all it takes to change your mind is an affectionate, transformative cover: I’ve come to enjoy “Oops, I Did It Again” and Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” thanks to Richard Thompson and Clem Snide, respectively. Everybody draws the line somewhere, though, and I continue to loathe “Chariots of Fire” even after hearing the Bad Plus—pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson, and drummer David King—slipstream it into a free improvisation on Suspicious Activity?, their fifth CD counting this year’s import-and Internet-only Blunt Object and the third engineered and produced by the adult-alternative auteur Tchad Blake. The 1982 Vangelis hit is the new album’s only cover, and it’s transformative, all right—Iverson takes those pompous major chords and unresolves them—but hardly affectionate. Like the Plus’s Queen, Black Sabbath, and Nirvana covers, it has the whiff of a stunt. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear Anderson’s gorgeous “Lost of Love” was the movie theme, though it actually sounds more like something from a daytime soap or the BBC.
The novelty covers are becoming more trouble than they’re worth, because along with Blake’s adrenalized drum’n’bass mix, they deflect attention from the way the Plus has enlivened that potentially most boring of jazz formats, the acoustic piano trio. No other up-and-comers in recent memory have been the target of as much animosity from veteran musicians as the Bad Plus were following These Are the Vistas in 2003. Bobby Sanabria predicted the fall of civilization; others muttered the usual nonsense about white boys and dues. Beyond the covers and the hype, the source of this animosity seems to be an ironic sensibility so alien to many veteran musicians they misinterpreted it as lack of respect for jazz tradition. This levity, which links the Plus to the late, lamented Microscopic Septet and gives them more in common with Fountains of Wayne and They Might Be Giants than with any of the bands they’ve covered, reveals itself in their presentation as well as in their music. Introducing his “O.G. (Original Gentleman)” at the Village Vanguard last month, Iverson told the full house it was a tribute to Elvin Jones. That was probably enough, and the dedication would have been obvious from King’s opening rolls. But Iverson went on to add, tongue in cheek (I think), that the piece depicted Jones’s trip to a Cleveland doughnut shop and “the atmosphere in the shop after he left.” It turned out to be a swanky blues that should have brought a smile to devotees of Ahmad Jamal, as if any were there.
Make no mistake, the Bad Plus play top-notch jazz. And except for their rock covers, their reaching out to a larger audience involves not a hint of condescension (unlike “O.G.,” most of their originals eschew a stated pulse, much less a groove). What overcame my skepticism was their version of Ornette Coleman’s “Street Woman” on last year’s Give—a careening interpretation that suggested a noble lineage I could kick myself for not getting on my own. At their dorkiest, the Bad Plus are like Ramsey Lewis on uppers; at their sleekest and most focused, they’re like Paul Bley on a skateboard. Bley was the first to adapt Ornette’s rubato to piano in the 1960s, when Carla Bley and then Annette Peacock supplied him with strong melodies that granted bass and drums equal voice with piano by not dictating tempo. Without being derivative of Bley and his ex-wives, or even betraying their direct influence, Anderson’s “Knows the Difference,” a highlight of both Suspicious Activity? and the Vanguard set, resembles them in its chromatic repetition, its mock melodrama, and its refusal to behave like a proper ballad after establishing that it is one—Iverson states the opening theme as if in a reverie, phrasing perpendicular to the beat, but Anderson is on the prowl from the start and King tosses out rhythm after rhythm like he’s dealing cards. Almost as good is Iverson’s “Let Our Garden Grow,” another ballad with the jitters and a crush on Mozart. The up-tempo numbers tend to start relatively quiet and crescendo—an effective formula when, as on King’s “Anthem for the Earnest” and “The Empire Strikes Backwards,” the surge in volume is accompanied by an increase in rhythmic complexity.
Leaving aside “Chariots of Fire,” my only quibble with Suspicious Activity? is that the mix puts King’s drums up too high, robbing them of depth. This wasn’t a problem at the Vanguard, where the instruments were in balance—and where the average age of the crowd must have been 10 or 15 years younger than I’m used to there. Are the Bad Plus attracting newcomers to jazz? As someone whose only recent meaningful contact with young people has been reading I Am Charlotte Simmons, I’m not the person to ask. I tend to doubt it, though: Amazon says that customers for the Bad Plus have also purchased CDs by Jason Moran, Dave Douglas, and Bill Frisell, which suggests to me that these are jazz fans who define jazz broadly. On the other hand, two seats at the back of the Vanguard were reserved for the bartender’s daughters, and that has to be a good sign.