Jazz artists covering popular songs is nothing new. In 1985, Miles Davis did a cover of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.” Herbie Hancock has covered Joni Mitchell, Simon & Garfunkel and The Beatles. And let’s not even attempt to go into how many jazz tribute albums there are to classic rock.
The Bad Plus has practically made a career out of doing jazz covers of popular songs. Over the years, the piano, bass and drums collective has made their name by taking on Nirvana, Black Sabbath and The Pixies. The trio’s sixth album, For All I Care, came out in February, and the covers are there yet again, this time taking on the likes of Wilco, The Flaming Lips and Heart.
This time around though, The Bad Plus tried something new: using a vocalist. The singer is Wendy Lewis, and her voice is used in a rather different way. Instead of standing out among the instruments, it blends in. She isn’t used as a show-off, but rather an ensemble performer.
That being said, the band’s version of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” works because of Lewis’s voice. It isn’t the most majestic, or soaring one out there, but she can more than hold her own. She doesn’t need to belt it out to be effective, rather letting the piano lines take the lead.
Overall, For All I Care is a more subdued effort from the band, with more of a focus on bringing out the melody on the piano. In the past, the band would make ample use out of simple banging and bashing, but not this time around. The interplay between the instruments is key, and it makes for an accomplished, if less exciting, album.
Marco Benevento is a different story. Also a part of the Benevento-Russo Duo, he is known for a different way of playing keyboards. Often, he will use different sounds and distortion to tinker with a song. It is twisted, and on his new album Me, Not Me, it comes through.
The best example of Benevento’s style can be heard through the album’s covers. “Golden,” a My Morning Jacket song, is deconstructed to the point where the melody of the original is only a passing memory. Sure, it is there, but it’s not the focus, and instead takes a backseat to the song’s rhythm.
Still, he can do the straight jazz game if he wants to. His cover of Beck’s “Sing It Again” is naked, not using the distortion and production techniques that adorn most of the album. It serves as a nice reprieve from the craziness surrounding it.
Other moments on the record are able to highlight the different ways Benevento is able to handle a cover. If he tore the melody of “Golden” to shreds, he left Deerhoof’s “Twin Killers” very much intact. The song rides a groove that rocks more than it swings, giving it an almost sinister tone that befits the title.
Both albums are very good, but Benevento is able to slip past The Bad Plus if only because of his mission to become a mad professor. He is not afraid to disassociate himself from the original version of a song and take it in a new direction, and the album pays off big time as a result.
The price scale: I rate albums more or less by price. Since a fair price for a CD at a store such as Best Buy is around $12.99, The Bad Plus’s For All I Care stands at a value of $10/$12.99, and Marco Benevento’s Me, Not Me stands at a value of $11/$12.99.