One imagines The Bad Plus as a kind of musical Golden Hind: a jolly voyage of equal parts exploration and plunder. Like Sir Francis Drake and crew, The Bad Plus has charted vast stretches of jazz-crossover appeal for label and country, but the group’s never too busy circumnavigating to exploit the odd passing tune for its unlikely coverability. Blondie, Nirvana and ABBA have already been boarded for the band’s breakthrough These Are the Vistas, their cargoes playfully tossed around and crews put to the sword. On the new Bad Plus album, Give, the New York piano-bass-drums trio sets its sights on The Pixies, Ornette Coleman and—what the effin’ hey—Black Sabbath.
Compared to these Seven Seas curios, most cover versions are mass-produced souvenirs purchased at quayside stands by timid tourists, and what they leave behind is often as telling as what they take. Ornette Coleman’s “Street Woman” (from the alto sax iconoclast’s 1971 Science Fiction album) is handled with dignity and delicacy and still swings like crazy. From The Pixies’ “Velouria,” The Bad Plus carry off a delicate melodic Mogwai (not unlike the piano-bass-drums version of Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” recorded by Charlie Haden, Paul Motian and Geri Allen on 1987’s Etudes) that swells into a feisty Gremlin when someone feeds it after midnight—a big, roiling version that does justice to the original in unusual ways.
But the band’s gleeful keelhauling of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” is a real highlight in high-seas skullduggery. It starts off with a sparkling piano cascade reminiscent of a Steve Reich counterpoint experiment (the composer used almost the same notes for a composition written for two pianos playing the same thing, gradually speeding up and slowing down) that gradually gathers itself into a rolling flight-of-the-bumblebee crescendo. Yet even when rock’s second-most-most famous chunk of monolithic riffage comes crashing down behind him, pianist Ethan Iverson plays Ozzy, Iommi et al. for parody, wittily transposing an evil song into something almost ecumenical. By its end, now fully retrofitted for a glorious, churchy major key, “Iron Man” sounds like something ringing out of the Church of England the day in 1581 when they knighted Sir Francis Drake.
Or so one imagines.
The Bad Plus plays UM’s University Theater Thursday, Sept. 9, with Critters Buggin’. Show starts at 7:30 PM. Tickets cost $15.