The Bad Plus – These Are The Vistas (2003)

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The surface comparisons were nearly impossible to ignore and, I have to admit, I immediately associated the Bad Plus to Medeski Martin and Wood.

But while the Bad Plus were just as rhythmically centered as MMW, the music as represented on These Are The Vistas steered back toward more traditional jazz elements. If anything, the Bad Plus made better use of their heavy rhythm-section orientation — as a band of three rhythm-section instruments should — because, rather than relying on constantly propelling forward, the group would break down for solos to further develop the melodic elements of their pieces.

After absorbing the Bad Plus as well as the upfront, bold, “big” production on the album by Tchad Blake, those surface similarities with Medeski Martin and Wood disappeared further. The resulting impression remained of that of a powerful jazz trio whose influences range from the traditional — Thelonious Monk (whose off-kilter and fascinating rhythmic explorations are mirrored in “Keep The Bugs Off Your Glass And The Bears Off Your Ass”) — to modern voices like Brad Mehldau, in particular during “Big Eater” and “1972 Bronze Medalist,” as pianist Ethan Iverson pounds at the piano in heavy, blocky chords reminiscent of Mehldau’s more frantic moments on the amazing Largo from 2002).

Of note are the three covers the Bad Plus chose for the album. All three were certainly gotta-hear-this choices: Who wouldn’t be curious what Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” sounds like rendered by a jazz group? Turns out that in the hands of these able musicians, “Teen Spirit” smells like a jazzified blues romp. And Blondie’s “Heart Of Glass” swings from a barroom boozer to an up-tempo ballroom number before careening into a short, tasteful drum solo.

Most intriguing of all is the Bad Plus’ take on electronic whiz-kid freak Aphex Twin’s adorably spastic “Flim.” While remaining essentially true to the original, listeners should be fascinated by drummer David King’s remarkable ability to mimic Aphex Twin’s ever-shifting, and entirely un-organic, percussive rhythms. This is one case where a straight reading of the original is actually more intriguing than using it as simply a jumping-off point. Sometimes covers like this can be gimmicky, but if done the right way, if those oh-so-familiar riffs are exploited just the right way, they can take on a life of their own. They don’t entirely fit in with the style of the rest of the album, but they don’t stick out like the sore thumbs they could be.

But is it jazz? Purists may balk, even now. For me, though, the Bad Plus are assuredly a jazz group. Where else would something like this fit? Yet there’s an element within jazz fans who will question their credibility because they choose to be bold instead of subtle, or because they selected covers with which to simply have fun, instead of using them just to explore their inner nuances.

Should jazz today be for the purists, or should it go seeking new arms to embrace it? Is there an answer? Probably not. Jazz may be an experimental genre, but the purists don’t want that experimentation to change or grow. I understand the jazz purist’s concerns, but I always come back to the same answer: That stuff’s already been done before and there is an enormous catalog of fascinating and beautiful music that does just that.

Jazz must grow — and if it grows away from what has traditionally been called jazz, how can anyone complain? It is too easy to replicate the past when it has become the institution that jazz has become. To break free and incorporate new elements, or even to simplify … that is the heart of jazz.

If jazz is about being experimental, is it really jazz anymore when you don’t?

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