After a few albums of original music and a reworking of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” the Bad Plus returns to its roots on It’s Hard. The trio, which mainstreamed the practice of turning modern pop songs into modern jazz, covers a wide swath of stylistic terrain on these 11 tracks, from Johnny Cash to Kraftwerk to TV on the Radio. Pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King bring the music back to the manner in which they broke through with their wonderfully awkward cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in 2003. There’s a lot of space in these performances and no swing at all. Patience abounds.
King plays with enormous restraint, in half-time, on the Cyndi Lauper hit “Time After Time,” while Anderson invents a new bassline for the song and Iverson plays an imagined harmony. They go almost-almost-country on Cash’s “I Walk the Line,” but the stutter-step rhythm makes it clear that this version is about creative destruction. Arrhythmia similarly guides an unusual but reverent cover of Prince’s “The Beautiful Ones,” on which Iverson plays two discordant patterns simultaneously in the bridge. Peter Gabriel’s “Games Without Frontiers” is twisted unrecognizably until the chorus arrives, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps” becomes completely chaotic. On the other hand, techno pioneer Kraftwerk’s fabulously monotonous “The Robots” somehow sounds perfectly natural in the hands of a piano trio.
These guys have always had great respect for a great melody, and nowhere is that more evident than on the disc’s two prettiest tunes, extraordinarily simple covers of Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over” and the Barry Manilow hit “Mandy,” which starts off syrupy sweet but surges into a storm of fat chords, rumbling bass and battered drums. It’s Hard is not all pop and rock, however. Nodding to the jazz cognoscenti, the trio turns in brilliant versions of Ornette Coleman’s “Broken Shadows” and Bill McHenry’s “Alfombra Magica.”