The Bad Plus
Brad Mehldau Trio
Anything Goes (Warner Bros.)
Whether it was Louis Armstrong tackling “All of Me,” Miles Davis playing “My Funny Valentine” or John Coltrane turning “My Favorite Things” inside out, jazz musicians from the 1920s through the ’60s drew on the pop music of their time. It made sense: If your art is variations-on-a-theme, it helps if your listeners have a sure grasp of the original theme. It also helps if that theme has a catchy melody and if it’s something you’re as fond of as your audience is. Pop music, in other words.
But in the late ’50s and early ’60s, when the foreground of American pop switched from Tin Pan Alley and show tunes to rock, soul and country, jazz didn’t change with it. It clung to those old swing tunes and Broadway showstoppers. The excuse was always, “These new songs don’t swing and don’t have interesting chord changes.” But jazz had always substituted chords in pop songs and had always altered rhythms. Likely, the real reason was fear that playing a Beatles or Motown number might derail jazz’s campaign to become “America’s classical music.”
Jazz now wears that title, but it paid the price by disconnecting itself from a broad audience. Now it’s trying to make up for past sins by reclaiming the pop music of the past 40 years. Cassandra Wilson has covered U2 and The Stylistics; Herbie Hancock has covered Prince and Peter Gabriel; Joshua Redman has covered James Brown and Eric Clapton. Two of the most talked-about jazz releases of this year come from acoustic piano trios that borrow not only songs but also styles from contemporary pop. Give, the new album by The Bad Plus, remakes songs by The Pixies and Black Sabbath, while the Brad Mehldau Trio’s Anything Goes adapts tunes from Paul Simon and Radiohead.
When The Bad Plus play Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man,” Ethan Iverson begins with a meandering prelude on a detuned upright piano. But he eventually lands on the familiar four-bar metal riff, where drummer Dave King and bassist Reid Anderson join him. We in the pop audience immediately know where we are, so when Iverson starts substituting chords, when Anderson starts veering off on counterpoint lines or when King is left alone to improvise fills, we can appreciate the distance between the theme, imbedded indelibly in our memories, and the variations. Something similar happens when The Bad Plus begin “Velouria” as an atmospheric reverie on the melody and only gradually build to the thrashing attack of The Pixies’ original.
More important than the sources is the sound of the performances. Tchad Blakewho has worked with everyone from Peter Gabriel to Los Lobosproduced this session like a pop record, not a jazz record. The drums are loud, the instruments clearly separated, and everything has a close-up crispness. While most jazz records sound as if they’re taking place in a nightclub, this one sounds like it’s happening inside a pair of headphones. Moreover, The Bad Plus aren’t afraid to break the cardinal rule of jazz orthodoxy and “not swing.”
The concept of pairing a classically trained jazz pianist and a rock ’n’ roll drummer makes for some fascinating contrasts between Iverson’s pretty melodic digressions and King’s slam-bang bursts. It would be more persuasive if King were a better rock drummerlike, say, Charlie Watts or ?uestloveand weren’t so stiff at crucial moments. The most interesting figure in The Bad Plus is the often obscured Anderson, whose versatility holds the whole thing together, and whose compositionsespecially “Dirty Blonde” and “Neptune (The Planet)”provide the juiciest themes of all.
Like The Bad Plus, the Brad Mehldau Trio are a working band who bring years of road-honed rapport into the studio. In sharp contrast to the revolving-door personnel of most jazz combos, pianist Mehldau has worked with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jorge Rossy steadily since 1995. On 2002’s brilliant Largo, Mehldau expanded the trio to experiment with electronics and rock beats as he covered Radiohead and The Beatles. This year’s Anything Goes is a more conventional jazz session, even if it does include the third Radiohead song to appear on a Mehldau album, alongside tunes by Cole Porter and Thelonious Monk.
Like The Bad Plus, the Mehldau Trio aren’t afraid to “not swing” when they want, but thanks to the more flexible Rossy, they can also swing with a vengeance when they decide to. On tunes like Harold Arlen’s “Get Happy,” Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years” and Radiohead’s “Everything in Its Right Place,” the trio slip in and out of syncopation, sometimes playing a straight 4/4, sometimes swinging, always keeping the listener off-balance. Anything Goes isn’t nearly as innovative as Give, but the musicians are better, more versatile players and deliver a more satisfying hour of music.
Then again, if you want to hear the most innovative jazz record made by a keyboard trio this decade, track down last year’s Bandwagon by Jason Moran, the brilliant young pianist who generates funk and hip-hop rhythms on his acoustic piano. He climaxes the album with an instrumental version of Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock,” its joyful boasts translated to Moran’s right hand and its trance-like groove to his left.
I just...this recap...why did I not know these were here until now?! 4 times on…
So long Don. Your creative energy and encouragement were inspirational to me.
It was so great being one of those kids in Dayton.
I miss Iodine.
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