A friend recently sent me a link to a YouTube video of a Caribbean steel-drum band playing a cover version of Joy Division’s “Transmission.” It’s one of those wonderful cover versions that makes you better appreciate both the original artist and the interpreter. More than that, it reminds you that a great song has a life of its own regardless of who performs it. That kind of cover version is the specialty of jazz artists, who are accustomed to working with a library of old standards and twisting them as far as they can go.
When Minneapolis jazz combo the Bad Plus took on Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in 2002, it was a revelation. This version was instrumental, but still it conveyed all the weird humor and disorientation of Kurt Cobain’s lyrics, not to mention the power of the music. After several albums that mixed covers of, say, the Pixies with avant-jazz numbers by the likes of Ornette Coleman, the Bad Plus returned this year with For All I Care, an album made up mostly of reworked versions of pop songs originally performed by artists as dissimilar as Yes, Wilco, the Bee Gees, Heart, and the Flaming Lips.
The Nirvana songbook makes an appearance again with “Lithium.” The big difference this time is that now guest singer Wendy Lewis joins the band. A more flamboyant singer might have used the opportunity to show off her range, but Lewis is refreshingly straightforward. She sounds like a guide who keeps the listener’s ears focused on the melody, while the Bad Plus spins off in every direction. The album can change the way you think about some of your old favorites.
BAD PLUS: Anthology, Thursday, July 23, 7:30 p.m. 619-595-0300. $20.