Recorded in April of last year and released on February 3rd , 2009, the latest Bad Plus album, “For All I Care”, is not exactly a “new” release anymore. Still, I feel compelled to review it here because I believe that the Bad Plus is the most important group in contemporary music today. Unlike the majority of other working bands, it is one of few to actively bridge the gaps between rock, pop, jazz, and, with “For All I Care”, classical music. Certainly, other groups have explored various sonic territories, but no one defies categorization quite like the Bad Plus. From the release of their eponymous debut, the Bad Plus have produced both transformative covers of rock classics to thundering yet sophisticated originals. Their success in doing so has the potential to open the ears of music fans of all stripes, though whether this will happens remains to be seen.

However, I don’t want to use this post to glorify The Bad Plus’ place in the contemporary music. For All I Care stands out for three reasons: The inclusion of vocalist Wendy Lewis, the absence of original materials, and the use of 20th century classical music. The first two aspects are fundamentally related – I’m not so sure the group is comfortable writing lyrics, so they may have been unable to write new material. Whether this is the only reason there are no originals isn’t clear but it has to be a reason. Ultimately, my only complaint with the album is that the absence of TBP compositions robs the listener of the thrill of hearing the band play new material, not just reworkings of rock songs, however entertaining and radical those reworkings may be.

Let met start with the positive sides to the album, which far outnumber the negative ones. First, TBP does a great job of redefining – through reharmonization, odd time meters, changed arrangements, etc. – various hits and non-hits from a relatively large sequence of rock and pop history with classics as diverse as “Comfortably Numb”, “Lithium”, and “Barracuda” getting the TBP treatment. Of particular note is “Lithium”, the opening track. Wendy Lewis’ subtle and flat (this not intended as a criticism) vocals provides the perfect vehicle for the the Nirvana classic, while the trio plays a dissonant accompaniment that manages to both stun the listener with its ingenuity and refuse to abandon the moody feeling of the original.

“Comfortably Numb” again involves a stark contrast between the Lewis’ low key delivery and the trio’s rebellious playing. The song develops from minimalist playing to the grandeur of the chorus back to minimalism and then again to chorus with a harmonic angst that brings out the subtle tension of the song and then finally, after a pounding finish to the chorus, a soft end that is, well, comfortably numb. The Bee Gee’s “How Deep is Your Love” (an interesting inclusion, to say the least) gets completely reworked as well, with a classical-esque introduction from Iverson and a version of the song that is unrecognizable from the original.. Wilco’s “Radio Cure” does not undergo much of a transformation, with the band staying true to the original with some changes in the song structure. Wendy Lewis delivers Jeff Tweedy’s thoughtful lyrics to the tune convincingly – I really thought this was one of the better tracks on the album.

And, to break up the vocal tracks, the Bad Plus includes three classical covers – Ligeti’s “”, Milton Babbitt’s “Semi-Simple Variations” and Stravinsky’s “Variation d’Apollon”. “Fém” and “Semi-Simple Variations” highlight the band’s incredible syncopation and “Variation d’Apollon” is a beautiful, lifting piece. The pieces are wonderfully arranged and feature the most daring playing on the album, though I’m not sure they fit in perfectly with the vocal tracks.

As I mentioned earlier, my only complaint with the album is the lack of originals. TBP compositions like “1972 Bronze Medalist”, from These Are the Vistas and “Physical Cities”, from Prog are, for me, the highlights of these albums. TBP’s covers are great but the meat of their music is really the originals. Still, the album gets my praise for seamlessly bringing Wendy Lewis into the TBP “sound”. Whether you are a TBP fan or not, please go out and buy this album!