It has got to be a challenge being the Bad Plus. You’re not just any jazz piano trio, no sir-eee. You recorded a version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on your first record and got a reputation for taking on cool adaptations. Your drummer was widely criticized for being “too loud”, but you were playing rock clubs anyway, so alienating crusty “jazz critics” was maybe a good thing. You recorded a set of rock covers but with an actual female rock singer and it was intriguing, even excellent.
You’re the Bad Plus. What’s your next trick? An album of Bill Evans interpretations or Cole Porter songs? I don’t think so.
There’s no shortage of brilliant piano trios today, but we’re still lucky to have The Bad Plus, which is brilliant in its own unique way. Back in 2011, Ethan Iverson (piano), Reid Anderson (bass), and Dave King (drums) brought their version of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” out on tour and got excellent notices. Finally, the piece has been recorded for the rest of us. And this reinterpretation is as fresh and breathtaking as the group’s past work. Indeed, it may be the most wonderful thing since its debut. Maybe better.
“The Rite of Spring” was first played just over one century ago at Paris’s Théâtre des Champs-Élysées as the score for a ballet by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes company. At the time, the audience erupted in outrage at the work’s avant-garde nature. Today, the Bad Plus lets us hear it anew.
This version is not the usual “jazz version” of a classical composition. Usually, the jazz/classical combination means that melodies and harmonies from classical work are used as the written “song” for a standard jazz performance, with the lead instruments improvising new choruses over the “song structure” of the classical piece. Here, Iverson plays the score of “The Rite of Spring” with almost total faithfulness on piano, transferring the orchestral score to his two capable (and classically trained) hands. Anderson plays pizzicato “jazz” bass in conjunction with Iverson’s parts, taking on melody elements and counter-melodies as appropriate. And King, well, he keeps things dancing and full of atmosphere. The jazz trio becomes the whole orchestra, but it doesn’t add improvised jazz solos in the usual sense. Never does the band take off on its own, spinning new melodies over Stravinsky’s “changes”. Melodically, there’s not even much embellishment.
Still, this is in every respect a jazz record.
Jazz means much more than improvising new melodies on set themes. This version of “Rite” places the elastic and magical rhythmic approach of jazz — a very modern kind of “swing” — on top of the composition. Because this is the Bad Plus and because it is 2014, this rhythmic transformation is much more than shifting Stravinsky into a 4/4 shuffle. So, what does this mean in practice? During the “Spring Rounds” section of Part 1, the orchestral score creates a sense of motion by alternating a bass and cello downbeat with off-beat chords played on the high strings or woodwinds. This sounds like a series of irregular steps, setting up a theme. In the new recording, of course, Anderson plays the downbeats on bass, Iverson plays the off-beat chords on piano — but the drums drive this section gently on cymbals so that it becomes the slowly swinging groove of a jazz rhythm section. The accents are shifted ever-so-slightly so that this section has the lope of a hip Herbie Hancock groove.
There are other sections where the thrill of the Bad Plus is how each member has to shift their respective grooves to keep up with the changes that Stravinsky requires. “Mystic Circle of the Young Girls” from Part 2 begins in a rotating feeling (a circle, natch) that the Plus evokes with a two-note bass figure and dancing drums around that, but that feeling is soon suspended. Anderson and Iverson trade off on the melody as the groove vanishes, and the orchestral accents become martial drum patterns and hits. In some cases, as here, the elements of the orchestral score that are shouts become surges, and orchestral parts that lurch in surprise become something more like the syncopation of a big band for our trio.
There are some sections where the similarities between the Bad Plus and an orchestra are eerily close. The next-to-last section, “Ritual Action of the Ancestors”, sounds very similar in both versions. But when Anderson imitates a two-step, oom-pah figure that the orchestra plays, he can’t help but sound a bit like a ragtime or New Orleans jazz player. And you wonder, in those moments, if Stravinsky himself wasn’t incorporating some of what he had heard of music from the United States when he wrote that section. That is, one wonders if “Rite of Spring”, on some level, has simply been waiting for its jazz interpretation all along.
If so, then the Bad Plus would have to have been Igor’s choice to do the job. The work here is impeccable and astonishing. The piece, played through with both precision and joy, has a natural feeling that denies any suggestion that this kind of tightrope act — Jazz Trio Plays Stravinsky Note-for-Note! — is a gimmick or mere schtick. Nope, This collaboration between a great composer and a great jazz trio is no more peculiar than the Plus playing “This Guy’s in Love with You” by Burt Bacharach.
Here’s the big hope: that classical music snobs will be as willing to check out this jazz group messing with one of their Big Guys as jazz snobs will be willing to sit down and listen to some Stravinsky. And, better yet, might the hipster rock folk who dug the Plus because of For All I Care or the jam band groovers who found about about them because they seemed kind of Medeski, Martin & Wood-ish — will they get hip to something that challenges all their assumptions?
Iverson, Anderson, and King are barrier-breakers, disrupters, pranksters, and deadly serious artists — and they’re doing it all thoughtfully and deliberately. What’s next for them? The beauty is that it could be just about anything.