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Photograph by Mike Dvorak
A Covers Manifesto: The Bad Plus's newest album, 'Prog,' is full of unusual takes on popular songs.

Run for Covers

The Bad Plus respond to critics who think their covers of Black Sabbath and Blondie are jokes

By The Bad Plus

WE ARE serious about all the music we play, the covers included. They are not a joke.

Since Louis Armstrong, there has been a tradition of playing covers in jazz. Of course, they aren't called "covers," they are called "standards," but the principle is exactly the same: you take some popular song of the day and improvise on it.

In common parlance, "standards" are songs from Broadway, Tin Pan Alley or Hollywood from about 1920 to 1965. This is a wonderful body of music created by high-level composers occasionally touched by real genius. When jazz musicians play a standard, they usually take the melody and a simplified harmonic sketch of the original and weave elaborate variations on its structure. This can be sublime and far greater than the original.

With the rare exception, TBP don't choose to improvise on music written from 1920 to 1965. Instead, we find it really interesting to search for ways to make rock, pop and electronica songs vehicles for contemporary improvisation. One reason that this material is not "standard" is that you can't call "Iron Man" at a jam session and pull off a mediocre interpretation of it the way you can with "All the Things You Are." There simply isn't a common language for it.

But just because the nonoriginal songs we play can't be called at a jam session isn't the reason 10 English critics think it's a joke. Why do they think it is a joke? There are two possible reasons:

(A) The original music itself is a joke: in other words, Nirvana, Blondie, Aphex Twin, ABBA, Neil Young, the Police, David Bowie, Burt Bacharach, Tears for Fears, Black Sabbath, Pixies, Vangelis, Rush, Led Zeppelin, Queen, Radiohead, Björk, the Bee Gees and Interpol is just inferior and not at the level of Tin Pan Alley, Broadway and Hollywood. Implied is the phrase "Rock is not worthy of the jazz tradition."

(B) The way we play the covers appears like parody or at least highly ironic. Both are wrong.

We love all the original versions of the music that we cover, and would rather listen to good rock than much of Broadway, Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley. It's also what we grew up with and still surrounds us every day. We believe that artists should utilize their life experience, not turn their back on it.

It follows that if TBP love these songs, we love playing them. As far as irony goes, let's dismiss our versions of Nirvana, Bowie, Aphex Twin and Pixies right now: there is nothing but respect in our reworkings of them. But at least three of our covers could generate confusion: "Tom Sawyer," "Iron Man" and "(Theme from) Chariots of Fire." Until you hear us play those three pieces, it is fair to think we are being totally ironic.

'Tom Sawyer': Rush is unsexy and Ayn Randian. (The lyrics to "Tom Sawyer" are an easy target.) But Rush is also feel-good music: when this song comes on the radio, even girls like it. And we respect Rush for creating a universe with their bare hands, carving out their Monstrous Math Rock from the granite quarries of Toronto. There is also an intimate connection between TBP and Rush, since Reid Anderson and Dave King bonded over them when they first met. Face it: whatever you dig at 13, you will dig for the rest of your life. (See also this post for more of Dave on Neil Peart.)

'Iron Man': OK, this is a pretty weird choice: Science fiction lyrics ("He was turned to steel/ In the great magnetic field/ Where he traveled time/ For the future of mankind") and the original Birmingham headbangers. Look, though, that is a powerful riff. When we kick this song, we aren't joking. We really try to bring the doom with just our poor little acoustic instruments. Our earnestness was rewarded with the ultimate compliment: Geezer Butler put our "Iron Man" on the Black Sabbath iTunes "celebrity playlist" with the comment, "Has to be the most original cover version of any song ever! Saw them at the Knitting Factory in L.A.—mind-blowing!"

'(Theme from) Chariots of Fire': Choosing to play this song is unquestionably ironic, especially if you check out Vangelis' original video, one of the corniest things ever made. But there is more than meets the eye here. First of all, this was one of Ethan's showpieces when he was 11. He loved it then and he loves it now. Also, it really is a good tune. Soho the Dog just wrote about it: "If you're a really honest composer, then you know that the question isn't so much whether or not you'd give up a body part to write an earworm as indelible as the theme from Chariots of Fire, but rather, how many, and which ones."

Finally, our exploration of "Chariots" is an embrace of grand drama to express complex emotions. After the blackest, most dissonant free jazz we can play, the tune rises at the end in a mighty crescendo. The feeling is "WE CAN WIN!" There is no irony in this feeling. It's one of those moments where you can put a lot of people together on the same page: We remember an outdoor performance of "Chariots" in Prospect Park for several thousand people that went particularly well. The massive roar of the crowd afterward was not "That was a successful snark, guys!" but one of pure joy.

Irony—and its allies: surrealism, sardonicism and dementia—does occasionally play a role in our music, just as it does in the work of many artists we admire. Consider some famous performances of jazz standards: What is more ironic than Thelonious Monk's "Just a Gigolo"? What is more surreal than Duke Ellington's trio version of "Summertime"? What is more sardonic than Charlie Parker's quote of "Country Gardens" at the end of many ballads? And what is more demented than Django Bates' "New York, New York"?

But as with those artists, irony is just a small part of the story in the Bad Plus. Here's our real story: We love songs. We believe in the power of song. We write songs as well as we can. There is not anything in TBP's repertory that is not based on melody, originals included. Thinking that we are not serious about the melodies we play is incorrect.

Once, a very straight-ahead jazz player came up to us after a gig and said, "You know, I'm surprised! 'Heart of Glass' is actually a good song!" Hell, yeah, it is.

THE BAD PLUS performs on Wednesday (Feb. 13) at 7:30pm at Montalvo's Carriage House Theatre, 15400 Montalvo Road, Saratoga. Tickets are $25–$35. (408.961.5858)

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