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.


Fred said...

Monster breathes fire to clear the stagnant air clouding fuzzy genre labeling of TBP and B&B. And yes, Sonny Rollins still (usually) kills in live performance.

vin said...

I find your comments tiresome and exceptionally ill imformed.You are consistantly wrong in nearly all of your assessments.Which,one dreads to suppose,is some kind of accomplishment.