Although the Bad Plus favor abstract calculus in the subversive formulas that yield their dazzlingly twisted collisions of jazz, rock, and classical, the most significant mathematical operation on their sixth album, For All I Care, is addition. Specifically, borrowing (apparently for this project only) vocalist Wendy Lewis, locally renowned as the alt-rock siren behind such bands as Rhea Valentine. Lewis's arid, essentially deadpan but spot-on delivery of achingly familiar lyrics from the rock and pop standards that dominate this collection adds a crucial new facet to the iconoclastic, Twin Cities-bred trio's cubist arrangements.
Like Picasso, Messieurs Ethan Iverson, Reid Anderson, and Dave King love to mess with your head, especially on covers of songs widely known (many toting significant critical baggage) outside their serious jazz milieu.
Typically they deconstruct a tune, reattach its fragmented bits at peculiar angles, jumble up the meter, dial in bop or swing or free jazz improvisations, veer into lush Iverson piano interludes via Gershwin and/or Cecil Taylor, while King and Anderson flail away on drums and bass with punkish energy when not conjuring baroque asides. The result is a complex assemblage of multiple, conflicting dimensions and perspectives, simultaneously sincere and ironic.
By enlisting a vocalist for the first time, BP anchor their peculiar tangents to Lewis's relatively straightforward presentation of literal melody and meaning, giving context to the crazily skewed panoramas. So on "Lithium" Lewis's laconic reading of Kurt Cobain's lyrics is unsettlingly intimate, opening the way for Iverson's dissonant runs and the raging bridge's fractured rhythms and jagged chords. On Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb," her unnaturally controlled voice is ominous, particularly as Iverson's scurrying piano teeters into a schizoid undercurrent. She's more animated on Heart's "Barracuda," closely mirroring Ann Wilson's timbre and phrasing, while Anderson and King morph the familiar rhythm lines into Iverson's free jazz dives. The handful of instrumentals that round out the album, by avant-garde classical composers Igor Stravinsky, Gyorgy Ligety, and Milton Babbitt, revel in their own idiosyncrasies, yet the trio's astute jazz- and rock-infused arrangements make perfect sense alongside the Bee Gees, Flaming Lips, and Roger Miller. Such genre-defying leaps clarify that the emphasis in the title (from the Cobain lyric) is definitely on "All."