If casual music fans know just one Bad Plus song, it's probably the jazz trio's revelatory rendition of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," which appeared on the group's 2003 major-label debut, These Are the Vistas. Exaggerating grunge's soft-loud dynamics, Ethan Iverson converts the song's guitar melody into fractal piano trills; David King then unleashes a series of levee-breaking drumbeats that rivals the original's anarchic catharsis.
Iverson is content to amass encyclopedic knowledge of jazz and classical artists, so it's not a surprise that he hadn't heard the song let alone Tori Amos' piano treatment before his bandmates brought it to his attention nearly a decade after its release. Given that the opening riffs of "Teen Spirit" had such immediate impact on so many listeners, many members of the grunge generation surely envy Iverson's opportunity for a "Eureka!" moment although it didn't exactly alter Iverson's listening habits.
"I can't say that the first time I heard it I was like, 'Oh my God, this is the music I've been looking for,'" he says. "It was more like, 'It's an F, next chord, also an F the whole thing's just an F, huh?' I remember asking if there was a bridge section."
While "Teen Spirit" played a pivotal role in the emergence of the Bad Plus, it's not a fixture on the group's current set lists; it surfaced for the first time in years during a Buenos Aires concert in late 2006. Nor does the band usually perform its strikingly poignant version of Black Sabbath's "Iron Man," which opens on record with Iverson playing two pianos (a detuned upright and a Steinway) simultaneously. ("We can't really put another piano on our rider," he explains.) In fact, while the Bad Plus knows that a certain percentage of curious concertgoers come for the covers (on this tour, they might hear one of the group's iTunes exclusives: Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song," Björk's "Human Behavior" or Queen's "We Are the Champions"), the band hopes they'll stay for abstract originals.
However, a rendition of Vangelis' "Chariots of Fire" represents the only interpretation on 2005's Suspicious Activity?, which disappointed some critics and fans. Opined an Amazon.com customer reviewer: "This album really could have used more brilliant covers in the Bad Plus tradition and a little less original material."
"I always like hearing people play other people's tunes, so I can understand that," Iverson says. "At this point, our fan base understands where we're coming from mostly original music, with some reimaginings of famous tunes. I don't think there are too many people in the audience that are disappointed that it's not all Nirvana covers. If we had chosen to, we could have capitalized and become much more of a cover band, which would have been good for our bank accounts but bad for the longevity of the band." Andrew Miller
8:30 p.m. and 10:15 p.m. each night Wednesday, January 3 to Saturday, January 6. Jazz at the Bistro, 3536 Washington Boulevard. $25 to $30. 314-531-1012.
Necessity is said to be the mother of invention, and for jazz guitarist Todd Mosby, the imperative was to find a way to express his growing interest in Indian music with the guitar skills he'd spent a lifetime developing. The resulting invention was the imratgitar, a hybrid instrument that combines features of a guitar and a sitar and, according to its inventors, represents a new branch on the evolutionary tree of stringed instruments.
"For the first time, it allows Western musicians access to Eastern music, particularly Indian rag music, without changing instruments," explains Mosby, who shares credit for the innovation with his Indian music teacher Ustad Imrat Khan, who inspired and helped develop the concept, and Kim Schwartz, a luthier based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, who built the first prototype and subsequent iterations of the design.
Khan, whose family has been involved in Indian classical music and instrument design for nearly five centuries, picked the woods for his namesake instrument and advised Mosby on what features were essential to meet his musical goals. "I made sure I got his stamp of approval on everything," says Mosby, who studied with Khan for five years. "I feel very honored to be the one to realize this dream for him."
The resulting design resembles a conventional guitar, but with the addition of a wing-like harp above the body to support a second set of sympathetic strings, which vibrate to produce additional harmonics. The imratgitar also includes a set of chikara strings, used to supply drones and rhythm, and a javari, a special type of bridge that imparts the buzzing tone commonly associated with the sitar. The original, acoustic version of the instrument also has moveable frets, which allow the player to bend the strings to distances far beyond what's possible on guitar. When the electric version was built, moveable frets proved impractical owing to tuning considerations; instead, a special scalloped fretboard was used to allow a greater degree of bend than a conventional guitar.
That ability to bend notes and introduce a vocal inflection into the music is a key characteristic of Indian music, and it's also crucial to the American art form of the blues, Mosby notes. "Blues is so well accepted because it's a vocal form of performance," he says. "They're pulling the strings like a human would sing."
Since the first prototype of the imratgitar was completed in 1998, Mosby has been refining the design and simultaneously learning how to play the instrument and incorporate it conceptually into his live performances. He's recently settled on a format for his shows that "starts with Indian music, then goes into Indian-jazz fusion, and then into more straight-ahead fusion with electric guitar," he says, and he plans to record a CD of solo music for the imratgitar later this year. In the meantime, Mosby will play the imratgitar during a series of performances every Wednesday night in January at Brandt's Café and Red Carpet Lounge in University City. Dean C. Minderman
8 p.m. Wednesday, January 10. Brandt's Café and Red Carpet Lounge, 6525 Delmar Boulevard, University City. 314-727-3663.