Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Every generation has a hero on the pop chart

The latest interweb dust-up about The Bad Plus and their covers has been well, er, covered at this point. I've blogged previously about Ethan, Reid and Dave, sometimes positively, sometimes less so. I stand by all of it. (And, pat self on back, I doubt I was first, but I called the prog angle two years ago...) A few thoughts anyway:

- I've thought, both as a player and as a critic, that the role of the critic was to judge what an artist does, not what the critic might prefer. My father likes to call that criticizing and ice cream soda for not being hot. Reading some of the (albiet selective) quotes TBP highlights, I think some of the critics would do well to remember that.

- One thing I like about TBP is that, if you played any of their records, but especially the last two, to someone who is musically literate but pop-culture clueless (like, say, my parents), I don't think they could tell the originals from the covers. There's an aesthetic unity to the work that I think undercuts some of the criticism they take for their covers.

- I won't touch the word irony, and I respect and thoroughly accept the what the band wrote, but I would say that, especially on a first listen, The Bad Plus' style can come across as quite, let's use the word glib. The last two bars of the A section of "Make Our Garden Grow" sound to me like a TV network audio logo, and I still find some of their cross cuts from crazy free to tight forms cuter than they need to be. Now that I know the band, both musically and socially, they make a lot more sense, and I like them more, but I understand why a critic wouldn't.

- Darcy asked the why TBP takes more flak for covers than, say, Jason Moran or Mehldau. I'd answer the question with a question- why are some pop tunes more acceptable for covering than others? Joni Mitchell, Radiohead, and Aaron Neville are okay, but Tears for Fears and Black Sabbath are out of bonds. Says who, and why? Lyrical quality- that never stopped us from covering "Miss Jones" or the much maligned "Surrey with a Fringe". I would, and do, think to cover Paul Simon or Curtis Mayfield, but not AC/DC or Blondie. That's due mostly to my own tastes and experiences, but I admit partially due to what I've been trained to expect "jazz" to be. Are musicians and/or critics projecting that out into a set of mores?

I would add that based on what I've heard so far of two much-balleyhooed new cover projects (and many before them), even picking "good, quality pop tunes" is no guarantee of making good music.

- finally, a tangent- one critic wrote: "…a slapstick version of E.S.T…". Would somebody explain the critical appeal of E.S.T. to me? (The popular appeal, as much as there is, I kind of get- It's pop-ish and approachable without looking like smooth jazz) I'm trying hard not to get to dark on other musicians, but... I've heard big chunks of two albums, and heard them live once, and hated every minute of it. The writing is thin on a good tune, the pianist hits the piano like it's a nail and he's a hammer, and I don't hear near the kind of interplay in that trio that I do in the bands they're often compared to. (Including TBP) I'd like to be wrong- can someone enlighten me?

Update: see Dave Douglas, another great advocate for covering newer music, and his especially cogent points on the topic.

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