Give piano trio the Bad Plus credit for annoying the staid jazz purists by recognizing that other genres aren’t necessarily subpar by comparison. Pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson and drummer David King have made annoyance into an art that’s now expected of them, especially when they cover pop tunes. On Prog, the trio’s first release on its own Do the Math imprint, there are more of those than usual.
From predecessors like Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” to Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man,” the Bad Plus has consistently picked hugely successful, overplayed hits and turned them inside-out. Prog leads off with Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” and all three musicians contribute to stripping the overproduced pop smash’s melody to its bare essence.
“Life on Mars,” one of David Bowie’s most cabaretish pieces, gets an over-the-top classical treatment by Iverson. Rush’s “Tom Sawyer,” so overplayed that the statute of listening limitations should’ve run out on it, gets a reading in which both Iverson and Anderson recite the lyrics instrumentally before a free-form solo section. Amid the rock coverage, the Burt Bacharach/Hal David composition “This Guy’s In Love With You” comes as a shock, since it’s something a normal piano trio might actually cover.
The originals come across as secondary, but would this group have released three prior CDs through Sony/Columbia as an all-original act? Anderson’s “Physical Cities” is a nine-minute, stop-and-start opus echoing King Crimson, and King’s “Thrift Store Jewelry” a Latin-influenced romp featuring a middle solo on his bizarrely tuned drums, which approximate plastic tubs. Even Iverson’s misguided “Mint” doesn’t fail through boredom. That’s the key to the Bad Plus, a piano trio that would rather swing and miss through rock influences than bunt on jazz standards.