he word for it, my friends, is dynamics. It’s not a very popular notion amongst rock groups these days, but that suits the Bad Plus just fine. After all, they play jazz, not rock. And PROG, despite what the title may holler at you, is a fine jazz album, brimming with dynamic range, svelte, light-handed production, and able playing three gentlemen who only look like a bunch of scummy rock ’n’ rollers. OK, that and they have been known to toss in a tune or two from unlikely pop predecessors like Blondie, Nirvana, or (on this record) Rush, Bowie, and Tears for Fears. Did I mention Burt Bacharach? Oh, and they’ve cut an Aphex Twin cover, which is its own reward, one imagines. Since 2003’s These Are the Vistas, they’ve padded out their albums with smartly selected, well-realized standards from alt-rock and classic sources. I use the word “padded,” but it’s really more of a selling point than an attempt to disguise filler. Their originals are generally amongst the most enjoyable selections on any given one of their three prior studio albums.
Not to dwell on their choice of source materials, but everybody else seems to, from the reviewers for whom it’s a nifty novelty to the jazz snobs who decry it as an obnoxious ploy for hipster cachet. Wynton Marsalis is definitely not a fan. What’s a bit unsettling to me is that there’s nothing new in what the group does, but it’s still seen as some kind of gimmick, perhaps because it evokes an epoch of the past, when jazz was unafraid to dwell in the realm of pop. How exactly what the Bad Plus does differs from, say, Ramsey Lewis or Wes Montgomery covering Stevie Wonder and the Beatles, I can’t really tell. Jazz was once on the forefront of popular music, and albums routinely carried interpretations of whatever current pop tunes took the fancy of the bandleader. I mean, hell, Miles Davis covered Cyndi Lauper. Was he just trying to sell records, too?
The Bad Plus are a trio toying with mass appeal in a genre gone unfortunately highbrow. They consist of pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson, and drummer Dave King. And though they make notable forays into unlikely secular material, they all compose originals that form the lion’s share of the album. One reason they could be mistaken for a band lies in the free exchange within the group. No one player really dominates the proceedings, and each is a refreshingly talented and original craftsman. The aforementioned dynamics are wonderfully balanced, loud and soft nimbly alternating in a manner akin to the groups’ ‘90s heroes such as the Pixies.
The groups’ originals are refreshing and sprightly, the type of tunes only jazz musicians would bother to write, characterized more by feel and finesse and less by dominant melodic lines or strict adherence to a rhythmic center. Most importantly, the group might toy with avant-garde or free playing and intense shifts of mood and volume, but at their core, they bloody well swing, an unfairly devalued currency in these trying times. Reid Anderson’s alternately sparkling and churning “Physical Cities” arrives dramatically following a light-fingered interpretation of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” Tense, stirring interplay between the players serves to set off the almost spy-flick feel of the tune, any number of tempo shifts keeping the mood prehensile and bracing. It’s one of a number of moments on PROG where the songwriting acumen of the band shows through, demonstrated in the commanding showcases they provide for their particular palette of sounds.
At their best, the Bad Plus utilize their re-imaginings of tunes the way all good musicians, jazz or otherwise, do: as springboards for the imagination and connective cues for a mostly jazz-illiterate audience. Questioning whether the Bad Plus are taking jazz forward or holding it back are highly dismissible when placed against the deft balance of adventurism and accessibility on display within their work. PROG, like all their recordings, is another collection of professionally played and well-produced tunes that present themselves to a potential mass audience with hectic grace, sober whimsy, fluent navigation of chaos and without the slightest shred of pomposity. Which, in the end, might just be exactly what jazz needs right now.