Monday, February 9, 2009

The New Fusion: New Records by The Bad Plus and The Bird and The Bee

When people hear the word "fusion," they generally think either of Miles Davis' "Bitches Brew," the slew of 70s bands that sprouted from those sessions (The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever, etc) or the smooth jazz lunacy generally played on "fusion" or "soul-jazz" radio stations (Kenny G, Dave Koz, etc). Of course, the idea of "fusion" in jazz at all is pretty ridiculous, especially now that jazzers like Robert Glasper have day jobs playing with rappers and Charlie Haden is releasing an (amazing) album of old-school country songs. So when I refer to the new fusion, I'm talking about music that makes a sincere attempt at bridging the jazz-pop divide, and no two bands encapsulate that idea from the two different sides than jazz pranksters The Bad Plus and indie-pop duo The Bird the Bee. Just my luck, they happen to have released new albums within a few weeks of each other.

Inara George and Greg Kurstin first made waves as The Bird and The Bee in the jazz community when, upon the release of their self-titled review, some critic felt the need to mention that Kurstin had studied music with Jaki Byard. "Holy shit," said the hipster critic (I'm paraphrasing here), "Jaki Byard played with that famous bass player dude what's-his-face," and thus, the myth that The Bird and the Bee play jazz was born. The Bird and the Bee are not a lounge duo, and there is little to no improvisation in their music, with the exception of a guitar or piano solo here or there. "Also," said the critic, "Inara George has a smoky voice like that chick Norah Jones, and she's like, kinda jazzy, right?" The critic was correct, and I suppose there is something subtle about Inara George's voice that makes the band sound jazzy. Of course, there is also the fact that THEIR HARMONIC BACKDROP AND VOICINGS ARE TAKEN DIRECTLY FROM MODERN JAZZ, but most critics, who majored in English in college, are unqualified to make a statement like that.

I realize that I'm spending more time ranting about The Bird and the Bee's ridiculously inept critical reception than about their music. "Rayguns Are Not Just the Future," their new album, is pretty good. It isn't quite as good as their eponymous debut, and on "Rayguns" they sound stretched a little thin; the debut was full of simple arrangements that highlighted the catchy melodies and out-there harmony of their tunes, while "Rayguns" is overproduced at the expense of the group's songs. Also, there is something ironically old-fashioned about the writing in songs like "You're A Cad" that simply couldn't have existed on an album with songs like "Fucking Boyfriend." In some ways it sounds like The Bird and the Bee have traded in modern jazz for a hipsterized version of Tin Pan Alley on "Rayguns." But still, I would recommend it to those who liked their debut.

The Bad Plus, one of the two great young hipster jazz ensembles of our time (Moppa Elliot's "bebop terrorist band" Mostly Other People Do the Killing would qualify as the other), are infamous in the pop world for their covers of songs ranging from Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" to "The Theme From 'Chariots of Fire'," but in general the best tracks on their albums have been their equally adventurous originals. Their new album, "For All I Care," is something of a departure for The Bad Plus: it is their first made up entirely of covers, their first with a singer, and perhaps their most accessible to a wide audience due to these two facts. It is also possibly their best, and their most experimental.

The singer, Minneapolis rocker Wendy Lewis, fits the band like a glove; she feels no need to add the inflections of a jazz singer, and her addition only underscores the idea that The Bad Plus are not a jazz piano trio, but in fact an experimental rock trio whose instrumentation happens to be piano (Ethan Iverson), bass (Reid Anderson) and drum kit (David King). 

Hopefully this new development will stop people from comparing The Bad Plus to Brad Mehldau's piano trio; while Mehldau's group treats rock songs like standards, The Bad Plus treat rock songs like rock songs. Just listen to Nirvana's "Lithium," which, in spite of a much more complicated rhythm and a disorienting key change in the verse, maintains both the energy and the sheer volume of the original, or to their take on Wilco's "Radio Cure;" their version, which begins as a duet between Lewis' voice and Anderson's bass, is perhaps even more cold, disaffected, and chillingly beautiful than the original. Highly highly highly recommended for non-purists, Nirvana fans, Bad Plus fans, everybody. I would go so far as to say that this is an early pick for one of the year's best.

Yeah, yeah, this was a really long post. Enjoy it while it lasts. Also, feel free to comment on the revenge of the double-review, I am aware of the fact that I haven't done one in a while.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Kind of World Music

The title of this post pretty accurately describes the music found on Gilfema's new almost-self-titled "Gilfema + 2." Gilfema, a trio made up of young internationals Lionel Loueke (guitar), Ferenc Nemeth (drums) and Massimo Biolcati (bass), was first heard on their fully-self-titled debut ("Gilfema," one of the best releases of the decade), and has since been heard on Lionel Loueke's "Virgin Forest" and "Karibu" as "The Lionel Loueke Trio." Now, on their new collaborative release, they have added clarinetist Anat Cohen and bass clarinetist (and occasional ocarina player) John Ellis to the mix.

While Cohen and Ellis each have occasional solo spots and play a large part in creating the texture for the band, the full responsibility for the group's vision still falls squarely on the shoulders of Nemeth, Biolcati, and Loueke. The three split writing duties (4 tunes are Loueke's, 3 each are Nemeth's or Biolcati's), although you wouldn't know that without looking at the liner notes; the tunes all make sense together, and there is clearly a Gilfema sound that is audible throughout this and their earlier album. Musical influence comes from all over the place (the three trio members are from Benin, Italy, or Hungary, and with the addition of Ellis and Cohen they can add America and Israel to their list of countries-of-origin), but the mix is Gilfema's alone.

The key difference between "Gilfema + 2" and "Gilfema" is, as would be expected, the addition of two horn sounds into the mix. Ellis' bass clarinet adds bottom without intruding on Biolcati's bass, and Cohen's clarinet makes for an interesting counterpoint to Loueke's guitar and voice. On the track "Your World," for example, Cohen and Loueke solo at the same time, bumping ideas off of eachother and eventually hitting a crescendo with a different texture than anything on "Gilfema." This addition, however, is also "Gilfema + 2'"s major weakness; Cohen and Ellis are not as telepathic as the original trio, who have been playing together as a unit since they attended college. This weakness is hardly major though, and the addition bolsters the original trio's texture in new and interesting ways; while "Gilfema" was a fairly loose mixture of jazz and world music, "Gilfema + 2" is a tightly woven tapestry in the same vein.