Other Voices, Other Tunes

The Bad Plus uses an A and B system to define and refute the (mostly British) critics of their repertoire. A.) the tunes are just as good as Tin Pan Alley fare, and B.) the critics are snobs for high art in jazz — simply assuming the mod covers are parody or irony.

This seems valid as a defense, but also insufficient. As someone who has also recorded covers from a more modern set of standards, I’d like to add some thoughts (without their approval or payroll, and speaking solely for myself). There are plenty of other reasons that this new repertory makes sense. Leaving alone the quality of the arrangements, which none of the criticism addressed, I feel there are other reasons The Bad Plus plays Tom Sawyer and This Guy’s in Love With You. And it gets to the heart of current musical and jazz practice and relevance.

1. Because the tunes are simply IMPROBABLE. If jazz is the sound of surprise, a search for new ways to serenade (or confound) a listener, the fact that these choices are so unexpected is strategy. People didn’t expect to put on a jazz record and hear ABBA. Post-TBP that’s no longer the case. The next cats will have to cover ABBA in a new way.

2. Taking back the repertoire. Why should we continue to play — exclusively — songs that get exactly one year older every year? Why wouldn’t we go on adding proportionately to the repertoire as the years go by? Whether or not you like the songs you hear on the radio, and even if you’re one of those folks who think The Quality of pop music has declined, this is the music in the air. This is what we have, we should play it. Not all Broadway Standards stuck, and not every Rufus Wainwright song is going to stick either. But they’re here.

3. Placing the originals in a context. One wag said “Once you’ve got past the jokey covers, it’s difficult to say what the point of this Minnesota piano trio is.” Exactly! This critic wouldn’t even listen to Ethan, Reid and Dave’s brilliant originals if he didn’t have this context (in his case a pet peeve) to talk about. Playing Iron Man says something about intent with regards to one’s own music, and establishes a territory, a language.

4. Taking a point of view about what makes a great song, a great composition. You can’t call Eric Dolphy’s Iron Man at a jam session either. But learning it, arranging it, and playing it with a group makes a statement that this music is worthy and why.

5. Playing new repertoire makes it possible that some day the tunes may be called at a jam session. I know some scenes where you could call Julius Hemphill’s Dogon A.D. and everyone would know it. Likewise OutKast’s Hey-Ya, Ray Charles’ I Got A Woman/Kanye West’s Gold Digger, or the slow movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. And Donna Lee, All The Things You Are, and Tiger Rag.

In any case I’m sure that the ultimate reason for playing these tunes is a mystery, as are most things in art and life.

Thanks everyone in Columbus, OH, and Santa Cruz, CA!