The Greatest Conversation

Dear Jazz Musicians, Play Pop You Fuckers! Episode 2: The Bad Plus.

Posted in New Music by Brian Park on September 17, 2009


The piano is such a melodic instrument, it is so difficult to make sound awful that I think eventually many great pianists are drawn to things that sound awful in their attempts to find things that sound new. Usually guitarists and violinists and vocalists who sound awful, sound that way because they’re trying to mask their inabilities (with one very notable exception who I will post about soon); in contrast, lots of awful sounding pianists–the capital N New Music composers are the worst offenders–are over educated and simply bored with the traditional models of harmony, tension, and resolution in popular music.

The Bad Plus has made a career out of playing carefully selected pop tunes in a very non-standard way. It works because pretentious assholes like me love the sounds and spontaneity of jazz, but miss the catchy melodies of pop. Hell, they even sneak in some beautiful compositions of their own that very much fit the aesthetic. True to the above gross generalization, the pianist Ethan Iverson definitely has a penchant for dissonance and cacophony. The reason that The Bad Plus works though, is the fact that the musicality of the other two players balances out the pianist. Dave King’s drumming is incredibly musical, and not just in the “oh he stays out of the way and listens” sense, he actually leads and shapes melodies. If you’re going to only listen to one of these songs, listen to the last one.

The Bad Plus – Big Eater

Big Eater is a song that shows off their chops, but absolutely establishes them as something other than your standard piano trio. Despite its strange timing, it very much has pop structures: the verse is strong, the chorus is melodic and relieves the tension from the verse, et cetera. Still, Iverson’s love of dissonance and his inhuman powers of independence shine through. How can he pull off such out there solos while maintaining the chords? There are no overdubs on any of their records…

The Bad Plus – Giant

This song is from the album Prog, which has a photo of a typewriter on the front. I always thought the typewriter was a great cover in combination with the album’s name because I’ve heard a lot of shitty prog guitarists and keyboardists who play fast not well referred to as “typists”. That inside joke, which I may only have with myself, gets even better when listening to this song; Giant is a beautiful, melodic piece written by the band’s bassist Reid Anderson which could not be further from the awful virtuosic wankery that often permeates prog music.

The Bad Plus – Radio Cure

I think this might be the pinnacle of pop music. The Bad Plus asked vocalist Wendy Lewis to join them on their most recent album, For All I Care, and she sits “in” the band perfectly. This is a talented and experimental band, lead by an unconventional yet haunting voice, playing a song with a beautiful tune and amazing lyrics. Is that enough adjectives for you? The song is the Wilco classic Radio Cure (video). I honestly have a hard time imagining someone not being able to find something they like in this song. Two and a half minutes in I swear its almost too good to take. Oh I should note, if you listen to this on shitty speakers the bass tends to get all muddled, and you’ll probably turn it off a minute in because it wont make any sense.

{note: music may not appear in some RSS readers, check the post to listen}


One Response

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  1. DavidLang said, on September 18, 2009 at 12:46 am

    “awful virtuosic wankery”
    I’m gonna have to borrow that one

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