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The Bad Plus - It's Hard / NPR: First Listen

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Here's a tip for jazz musicians that works better than it should: If you wish to be noticed by people who use words, play some covers. Not standards, but songs from a more recent era of popular music, or something else left-field. Even today, it stands out from mainstream practice, which shifts gradually over longer durations. It moves the playing field away from the nuts and bolts of your playing, where our critical lexicon is generally impoverished, to your signaled influences and decision-making, which are much easier to talk about. At the very least, it tends to be amusing.

It's still Reid Anderson on bass, Dave King on drums and Ethan Iverson on piano; it still likes to put a hitch in a commanding drumbeat or overgrown dissonance into a cleanly struck piano line; it still brings it live. After more than a dozen years spent touring the world, The Bad Plus' covers gambit seems much less like thirst for provocation than hunger for adventure.

So, yes: The Bad Plus' new album, It's Hard, is all covers. There's no particular overarching aesthetic to the selection. It encompasses alternative rock from the '00s (Yeah Yeah Yeahs, TV On The Radio); hits of the '80s (Prince, Cyndi Lauper, Peter Gabriel, Crowded House); a piece from free-jazz hero Ornette Coleman and one from a spiritual descendant of saxophone-blowing and melody-shaping, Bill McHenry; and some other unlikely idiosyncrasies (Barry Manilow). Neither is there a formula for approaching these songs. Some seem like acts of reinvention, disassembly and re-engineering (Kraftwerk sans motorik beat); others amplify the existing energy the best a mischievous acoustic piano trio can (Johnny Cash as a shuffle after too many drinks).