Rock bands shouldn’t cover Nirvana. Recontextualizing such deeply personalized lyrics — lines stained with blood and stomach-churned bile — destroys the soul of the song, and no chord adjustment or tonal alteration, no matter how creative, can resuscitate it.
Instrumental jazz trios, though, can feel free to give it a go. Bad Plus’ “Smells Like Teen Spirit” pounds out the tune’s familiar salvo in measured, ominous notes, then plinks out the melody on piano in a manner similar to Tori Amos’ subtly sorrowful concert reading. Eventually, though, Bad Plus’ rendition spirals into madness, becoming more anarchic and atonal than the original. It’s easy to imagine an instrument-smashing live show, with a hefty stand-up bass slamming into a suddenly gap-toothed grand piano. The drummer, still pummeling his kit, gets pelted with wayward keys that shower him like projectile precipitation. The next track after “Teen Spirit” adds to this image, beginning with a moment of near silence, as if the players were still sorting through the wreckage.
Bad Plus gets even rougher with Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” shattering the pristine pace and dragging the delicate melody over the jagged shards until it’s thoroughly mutilated. By contrast, it coddles Aphex Twin’s “Flim,” thawing its icy electronic casing with warm grooves. By remaking a drum-‘n’-bass tune, Bad Plus twists the still-popular “dance music is the new jazz” slogan. Its other cover choices carry similar portent. Adventurous jazz players such as Ornette Coleman and Miles Davis were among modern music’s first rebels; now that tag goes to Nirvana imitators such as the Vines, more because of their hotel-trashing idiocy than their derivative riffs. The opening strains of this “Teen Spirit” or of Bad Plus’ original compositions, which range from hammering repetition and free-sprawling chaos to soft echoes and tight arrangements, won’t become the soundtrack to a movement. They do, however, verify the existence of a fresh generation of mavericks who might make jazz dangerous again.