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MUSIC REVIEW: The Bad Plus

The Bad Plus never set out to be known as the instrumental jazz trio that does, like, Abba tunes.

On the contrary, pianist Ethan Iverson says, the longtime friends attempted pop and rock covers for a reason that is, well, pretty punk rock: They didn't have enough original music to play at their first gig.

"We talked about doing a jazz standard," Iverson, 34, remembers, "but we were, like, `Why not do Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" instead?'"

It was a career-making decision for the fascinating Brooklyn- and Minneapolis-based act.

As Gen-Xers influenced by rock, electronica and indie-rock, they have continued to include a handful of mainstream covers on each of their albums. This has caught the ear of critics, who often are enamored, even if Bad Plus albums are composed mostly of challenging, dynamically charged jazz originals.

The Bad Plus' latest CD, "Prog," offers four covers. Track one is a gorgeous treatment of Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants to Rule the World," before the trio tackles David Bowie, Rush and Burt Bacharach.

To Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson and drummer David King, appropriating the music of their youth into jazz feels natural.

"The thing is, there's a tradition," Iverson says. "Not just in jazz but in all music - of taking a theme everybody can recognize and doing variations on it.

"What's different between Miles Davis playing `My Funny Valentine' by Rodgers/Hart and us playing a Tears for Fears song? We don't really see a difference, conceptually, in a certain way. `My Funny Valentine' was a pop song back then."

Certain Bad Plus covers work better than others. The trio's crashing take on Rush's "Tom Sawyer," for example, doesn't succeed as lushly as the Tears for Fears tune.

Nevertheless, none of this is as straightforward as it might sound. On certain levels, the challenge presented by a pop-to-jazz transmogrification requires significant gray matter.

"Any jazz musician can sit down and play songs that were written for musical theater, because there's sort of an expected way of doing it," Iverson says. "The type of chord changes and the way you play, like a swing 4/4 beat and walking bass, that sort of stuff."

"You need to think about it if you're going to play (Black Sabbath's) `Iron Man,' " he continues. "You can't do that with `Iron Man.' So that's the difference. All the things we've done, they're very thought out."

This also applies to Bad Plus originals.

Anderson's "Physical Cities," the second song on the new album, could be construed as the jazz equivalent of heavy rock. Meanwhile, Iverson's elegant but dissonant "Mint" hints at his love of classical music.

The Bad Plus consistently concocts jazz filled with ambition, virtuosity - and aggressive creativity.

"Whether it's our own music or the Nirvana song or Black Sabbath," Iverson says, "we're going to bring in the chain saw and take it down."

Jazz purists may find The Bad Plus' anything-goes philosophy tough to swallow. But on a large scale, it's difficult to argue against The Bad Plus' success in winning new listeners - even if those listeners are wearing Kurt Cobain T-shirts.

"Once in a while, there's a young guy that will come up after a Bad Plus show," Iverson says. "Maybe 15 or 17. And he'll say to me, `You know, I didn't know I liked jazz. I have to check it out now.'

"I feel like I can die in peace when I hear that."

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