The Bad Plus Covers Up In 'For All I Care'

Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews For All I Care, the new album from The Bad Plus joined by Wendy Lewis.

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DAVE DAVIES, host:

Since their founding in the year 2000, the piano, bass and drums trio the Bad Plus have specialized in playing pop and rock songs by the likes of Abba, Black Sabbath and Nirvana. They cast an even wider net for material on their new album. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead admits the band is growing on him.

(Soundbite of song "Semi-Simple Variations")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD: "Semi-Simple Variations" by American composer Milton Babbitt; it's one of three salutes to 20th-century classical music on the Bad Plus' new album "For All I Care," alongside pieces by Stravinsky and Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti. Ethan Iverson breezes through the difficult piano music, while bassist Reid Anderson and drummer David King rock it up like Emerson, Lake & Palmer playing Mussorgsky.

(Soundbite of song "Semi-Simple Variations")

WHITEHEAD: The band intercuts that modern composed music with more typical Bad Plus fare, songs by Nirvana, Wilco and the Flaming Lips. On those numbers, they're joined by Minneapolis rock singer Wendy Lewis of the band Redstart. Having Lewis out front frees up the trio to be a rhythm section, hitting some tricky grooves.

(Soundbite of song "Lithium")

Ms. WENDY LEWIS: (Singing) I'm so happy 'Cause today I found my friends. They're in my head. I'm so ugly, but that's OK 'Cause so are you. We broke our mirrors. Sunday morning...

WHITEHEAD: "Lithium" by Kurt Cobain, the Bad Plus' George Gershwin. You could think of this trio as a rock band of jazz musicians. They can build it up and break it down like arena champs, but keep in reserve a jazz band's way with polyrhythms and stretching the harmonies.

(Soundbite of song "Comfortably Numb")

Ms. LEWIS: (Singing) When I was a child, I caught a fleeting glimpse Out of the corner of my eye. I turned to look, but it was gone. I cannot put my finger on it now. The child is grown; the dream is gone. I have become comfortably numb

WHITEHEAD: Tackling Pink Floyd, the Bad Plus remind me of Sonny Rollins playing Al Jolson or Dolly Parton. They treat seriously materials someone else might think ridiculous. On the album, "For All I Care," the Plus tests their deadpan approach on four relics of the 1970s: Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb," tunes by Yes and the Bee Gees, and Heart's "Barracuda," recorded last spring before anyone knew the song would be a political football in the presidential race. Their most audacious cover is the quietest, country songwriter Roger Miller's "Lock, Stock and Teardrops." Wendy Lewis and the band turn it into a slow-drag art song.

(Soundbite of song "Lock, Stock and Teardrops")

Ms. LEWIS: (Singing) Someday I'll wake up, find my strength and move along. And lock, stock and teardrops, I'll be gone.

WHITEHEAD: Underplaying material didn't use to be the Bad Plus' strength, but they do keep stretching, sounding here and there like a chamber group, a frat-house band and Marianne Faithfull. I'm not crazy about all of their new album. They treat the Bee Gees' "How Deep Is Your Love" a little too reverently, but I don't know who else could cover Roger Miller and Milton Babbitt in one set. With broad repertoire like that, they might even get around to playing jazz tunes some time.

(Soundbite of song "Barracuda")

Ms. LEWIS: (Singing) You're gonna burn, burn, burn, burn, burn it to the wick. Ah, barra - barra - cuda.

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead is currently on leave from teaching at the University of Kansas, and he's a jazz columnist for eMusic.com. He reviewed the new recording by the Bad Plus called "For All I Care." Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer is Roberta Shorrock. Our engineer is Audrey Bentham. Dorothy Ferebee is our administrative assistant. Sue Spolan directed the show. Our digital production project supervisor is Julian Herzfeld. Terry Gross returns next week. I'm Dave Davies.

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