Maybe this is stretching the point, but there is a photograph among the inside cover art of The Bad Plus’ new album “It’s Hard” that speaks not only to the record’s repertoire of cover material, but to the very nature of this purposely out-of-time jazz trio. It pictures two outdoor phone kiosks standing side-by-side with their instruments removed — the skeletal remains of a formative but obsolete means of communication.
That’s not to insinuate The Bad Plus is in any way an archaic band — quite the opposite, in fact. What it achieves on “It’s Hard” is a return to form. There are no guest soloists, no outside vocalists and no askew production touches. It has the trio adapting a set of what could be called new standards, a collection of largely pop-directed works that aren’t simply recast in a jazz setting but are wholly reconfigured. Such a task isn’t new to The Bad Plus. The trio has interpreted a variety of material throughout its career, culminating with a full transformation of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” on a 2014 album.
“It’s Hard,” ironically, is both an easier listen and a more direct glimpse of the trio’s sense of pop-to-jazz transference with seemingly abandoned works (by Yeah Yeah Yeahs, TV on the Radio and Kraftwerk), contemporary classics (from Crowded House, Cyndi Lauper and Johnny Cash) and tunes representing two cross-generational jazz stylists (Ornette Coleman, Bill McHenry).
The timeliest entry is a bright, light take on fellow Minneapolis artist Prince’s “The Beautiful Ones,” cut a month before the pop icon’s death earlier this year. This version creates animated dialogue between pianist Ethan Iverson and bassist Reid Anderson, with percussive skirmishes orbiting them by drummer David King. Hearing Iverson briefly burst out of this circular play with a powerfully regal piano roll sits as one of The Bad Plus’ keenest recorded moments. In a scant three-and-a-half minutes, the entire adventure is complete.
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The sense of reinvention on “It’s Hard” tends not to follow the expected lyrical order of the original compositions. That’s standard operating procedure for how jazz combos approach any kind of standard. But the plans of attack vary drastically from song to song. Neil Finn’s Crowded House signature tune “Don’t Dream It’s Over” is splintered into shards of ambient and abstract colors, making the tune sound, in fact, dreamlike, while Peter Gabriel’s “Games Without Frontiers” is full of Thelonious Monk-style modal mischief, with the interpretation sounding simultaneously childlike and impertinent.
The big surprise, though — make that the huge surprise — is a take on the 1970s Barry Manilow hit “Mandy.” Under Iverson’s lead, the treacle dissolves into dissonance, leaving passages of lyrical grace but also lots of quietly scorched terrain. It’s a modest example of The Bad Plus at its best, turning pop order into stately jazz disarray.