That the Bad Plus have recorded pop covers since their inception as a piano/bass/drums trio is a given in their M.O. The Minnesota-based trio has consistently added tunes by Blondie, Queen, Black Sabbath, David Bowie, Ornette Coleman, and Burt Bacharach to their albums -- in addition to their own compositions -- as they've gone about reinventing the piano trio sound and dynamic in jazz (they have become the loudest, most hard rocking acoustic trio in the music's history). Some critics have accused them of camp, but this is simply a pronouncement of ignorance and prejudicial conservative and "preservationist" paranoia. After a decade of working together, the Bad Plus, following up their brilliant 2007 album Prog, have undergone some major changes: they left Sony and now record themselves independently. They've chosen Heads Up as their label/distributor in the United States and Universal in the rest of the world. For All I Care also marks their first recording entirely comprised of covers. The songs range from tunes by Nirvana (who they've covered before), Wilco, and Pink Floyd to Milton Babbitt, Igor Stravinsky, Yes, the Flaming Lips, and Gyorgy Ligeti, to Heart, Roger Miller, and the Bee Gees. There isn't an original on the set. Another first for the trio on For All I Care is the addition of Minneapolis rock vocalist Wendy Lewis.
Perhaps the most compelling, shocking, and wonderful thing about this collaboration is how much Lewis' presence becomes part of the trio's landscape. Where before they've chosen tunes rich in irony for a jazz band to cover -- "Heart of Glass" and "Iron Man" come immediately to mind -- the emotional intensity and reverence Lewis offers the material only intensify their approach, especially "How Deep Is Your Love." On tracks like Heart's "Barracuda," Lewis becomes a real soloist despite deliberately downplaying her interpretive skill as a singer. In becoming a "member" of the band on this outing, she stands out as its singer. Her lack of vocal histrionics and acrobatics allows the melodic, harmonic embellishments and dimensional extensions by the band to roam free over the material. She grounds them but they still swing like mad. Check the reading of a "classic rock" nugget like "Long Distance Runaround" and you'll hear a fresh, brave, and utterly engaging song in its place -- despite the fact that the lyrics, and melody have been faithfully rendered. The same goes for Kurt Cobain's "Lithium" that opens the set. In the trio's able hands, the pathos in that lyric, and Cobain's melodic intricacy, can actually be heard. The dead space in Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb" comes across as revealing the void at the heart of the song. The heartbreak in the Flaming Lips' "Feeling Yourself Disintegrate" is devastating because of her dry delivery as accented by Reid Anderson's propulsive bass, Ethan Iverson's almost florid embellishing piano, and the in-the-cut breaks played by David King. On the modern classical material where vocals are absent, the trio look to interpret these works with deep concentration and bring out their improvisational possibilities as jazz tunes; they succeed in spades -- check the knotty contrapuntal bass and piano interaction on Ligeti's "Fém (Etude No. 8)" for example. This is one of the most compelling releases yet by one of the new jazz's finest bands to emerge in the 21st century.