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The Bad Plus: Suspicious Activity?

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Ah, the Bad Plus, subject of many a heated debate. Dozens of jazz fans want to know: Is the “controversy” over this New York-based piano trio still simmering? Let’s hope not. After all, nearly three years after the Bad Plus’ breakthrough and Columbia debut, These Are the Vistas, it should be clear to anyone paying attention that this band is neither as save-the-genre important as some boosters had hoped nor as hog-the-spotlight popular as some haters had feared. Attribute the latter anxiety to the group’s sales, which would barely earn a metal band a blurb in Rolling Stone, or perhaps to its major-label contract, something that was once not all that big of a deal. (Some claim that the Bad Plus buzz is less about talent than race, but try telling that to Dave Douglas-an excellent white trumpeter recently dropped from Bluebird/RCA.)

The good vibes, on the other hand, owe much to the band’s generous ensemble playing, affinity for unorthodox covers and drummer David King’s tendency toward fierce, rock-informed beats. Fake jazz? No more so than Mahavishnu Orchestra, Tony Williams Lifetime or Return to Forever. The Bad Plus’ latest full-length, Suspicious Activity?, like its two Columbia predecessors, is simply the sound of a band acknowledging its proper place in time. Granted, several cuts on Activity go overboard on the pop: Throw a John Mayer-type vocal on the pulse track “Anthem for the Earnest” or on the melancholic ballad “Lost of Love” and the tunes are more or less radio-ready. And at least one track, “O.G. (Original Gentleman),” is pretty much straightahead, exposed-brick bop (King swings!).

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