It's hard to say whether the Bad Plus offer a familiar path into potentially intimidating territory or find the intimidating side of familiar material. The Minnesota trio often channel the pop canon - from Blondie's "Heart of Glass" to Rush's "Tom Sawyer" - through lean avant-jazz attacks. They'll play both covers and originals at Union South on March 3.
Jazz performers are known for drawing upon Broadway musicals and popular songs in addition to works by jazz composers. The Bad Plus' habit of filling set lists with both original tunes and covers of recent pop songs is a logical extension of that tradition. They tease interesting challenges out of the more accessible songs they play. On 2008's For All I Care, the trio and vocalist Wendy Lewis gradually work their way into Wilco's "Radio Cure," guided by the almost cautious thrum of Reid Anderson's bass. During an instrumental break, pianist Ethan Iverson prods at the song's melodic theme. The effect is somehow just as poignant as the song's statement that "distance has a way of making love understandable."
In contrast, the band's last two albums, 2010's Never Stop and 2012's Made Possible, focus on original compositions. Both start with tracks that feint toward the comforts of straightforward jazz. Made Possible's "Pound for Pound" has melancholy piano, and Never Stop's "The Radio Tower Has a Beating Heart" features amiably busy flourishes. But soon, the band highlights the complex relationship between accessibility and adventure. On Made Possible's "Sing for a Silver Dollar," drummer Dave King sets an ominous, thumping beat that clashes with the sprawling warmth of Iverson's chords, and then minimalist electronic touches accompany Anderson's scratchy bass solo.
Above all, the Bad Plus are adept at exploring the tremendous space a jazz trio can create. On the 14-minute "In Stitches," King keeps you from getting too cozy with Iverson's elegant piano, his odd rhythms instead amplifying the turmoil Iverson implies. If you attend the trio's live show, don't try too hard to put words to what you feel. The musicians' formidable compositions and playing will steer you away from easy answers.