Calling jazz “America’s classical music” isn’t too far off. There’s a lot of work that goes into studying and appreciating European art music, and jazz’s storied history requires a similar kind of formal academics.
Which rather excludes listeners who have only so much attention span to devote to a three-minute rock song. That is, I can dig jazz as an idea, but it’s not going to dent my CD shelf space the way rock music does.
Enter the Bad Plus.
Sure, the wild improvisation and the obvious swing mark the band’s debut These Are the Vistas as a jazz album, but there’s something in the Bad Plus’ performances to make it more akin to a rock album.
The Bad Plus calls itself the loudest piano trio in the world, which is something of a misnomer. Volume is only a symptom of the troupe’s fire.
First off, the Bad Plus doesn’t exclusively play be-bop — some of the band’s pieces are structured more like songs.
The album’s openers, “Big Eater” and “Keep the Bugs Off Your Glass and the Bears Off Your Ass”, actually feel like they have choruses and middle eights.
“Everywhere You Turn” doesn’t even have much in the way of improvisation — just one musical idea starting quietly, gradually increasing in intensity, exploding to a peak, then dying down.
The slow-burning “Guilty” and the angular “Boo-Wah” show the Bad Plus can deliver a relatively conventional form of jazz, but the Bad Plus works best when they’re stretching those boundaries.
Nowhere is that ability more apparent than on the group’s choice of covers.
A jazz piano cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” looks like a bad opportunity for some real schmaltz on paper, but the Bad Plus keys into the viscera which made the original song a generational rallying cry.
At the same time, they really fuck up the harmonies behind Kurt Cobain’s seminal work — and in a very good way.
Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” becomes a foundation for some incredible rhythmic liberties, while Aphex Twin’s “Flim” shows programmed beats can sound human under the right arms.
These Are the Vistas closes with the epic “Silence Is the Question”, a piece not afraid to incorporate grandoise chords from Romantic era classical music.
Despite the Bad Plus’ hybrid of pop structure and improvisational skill, the trio really pound its instruments like rock musicians. Ethan Iverson isn’t the cleanest pianist around, nor should he be. Drummer David King, though, really knows his kit.
As such, These Are the Vistas shouldn’t feel too out-of-place in a CD collection sparse on jazz.