Evocation of the Ancestors: An Interview with the Bad Plus

In tackling Stravinsky, the Bad Plus tell PopMatters how they've met their most interesting challenge yet.
The Bad Plus
The Rite of Spring
Sony Masterworks

Jazz trio the Bad Plus has often been referred to as a “rock group that plays jazz”.”

People didn’t arrive at this description through their sound alone. Their choice in repertoire early on sealed that crossover appeal. The band’s major label debut featured covers of Nirvana, Blondie, and Aphex Twin. And with each subsequent release, I would always wonder “What are they going to cover next?” The answers never failed to surprise. 2005’s Suspicious Activity? had only one cover (“(Theme From) Chariots of Fire”). Two albums later, the Bad Plus recorded For All I Care, an album of nothing but covers. The next two releases featured only original material composed by all three members. In the wake of this moving-target method were sturdy piano, bass and drum renditions of Yes, Rush, Tears for Fears, the Flaming Lips, the Pixies, Milton Babbit and Igor Stravinsky. And what came next was still a bit of a surprise.

Duke Performances at Duke University commissioned the group to arrange and perform Stravinsky’s monumental ballet “The Rite of Spring”. Pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson, and drummer Dave King set to work giving this controversial work the unmistakable Bad Plus spin. After performing it live around the globe, a studio recording was released on Sony Masterworks. Press has been good and no rioting has ensued. The shock of a sacrificial virgin dancing herself to death has faded in the rear view over the past 100 years. What has remained is the music.

As Reid Anderson chatted with PopMatters, he frequently referred to the score of the ballet as “powerful”, something that can and does stand on its own musical merits to this very day. In our conversation Anderson elaborated on the nature of the work, how it could benefit everyone if we gave the score and the dance a fresh coat of paint, and what we can expect from the Bad Plus later this year.

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This is not the first time you guys have covered Stravinsky.

That’s true. We played a movement from his ballet “Apollon musagète” on a previous record called For All I Care.

Did that point you towards The Rite of Spring?

It put the idea out there in the universe of us playing Stravinsky. When The Rite of Spring was commissioned by Duke University, they had wanted to do a project with us because of our previous association with Stravinsky’s music. The Rite of Spring was brought up as a potential idea.

I once heard that “The Rite of Spring” was a personal favorite of Charlie Parker’s. Can you explain the appeal this ballet has to jazz musicians?

I think it’s a very seminal piece for 20th century music in general. It’s rhythmically complex and innovative. I think that has a lot to do with its appeal and why jazz musicians find it intriguing. The rhythms are like nothing that had ever been heard before. It manages to be simultaneously folkloric and high art.

There’s a passage in composer Aaron Copland’s book What to Listen for in Music where he says that, in this era of music, melody is “unimportant” while the rhythm is difficult.

Yeah, I doubt Aaron Copland thought that melody was [overall] unimportant, but the level of rhythmic innovation happening at that time was a more significant stream happening in the music rather than a focus on the melodic.

You’ve said before that, when playing a rock song like “Tom Sawyer” by Rush, that the Bad Plus played with a “rock feel” rather than a “jazz feel”. Did the band channel a “classical feel” when covering “The Rite of Spring”?

“Cover” is such a not-useful word, in a way. Of course it’s the one we all use. When we say “cover”, it sort of implies a cover band trying to emulate the original song. But what we really try to do is make it our own. We’re definitely don’t try to put it in a jazz framework. Anything that we do, we just try to take it on its own terms, however it seems to us. With Stravinsky, I think it’s closer to the concept of a cover because we’re really playing “The Rite of Spring”. But at the same time, the three of us have our own folkloric language that we’ve spoken amongst ourselves for 14 years now. We don’t try to avoid our accent when we’re playing “The Rite of Spring”. We want to be ourselves playing. We don’t want to sound like an orchestra because we’re not an orchestra.

I wanted to ask about the introduction, the way it’s played and recorded. I hear something that sound’s like Ethan Iverson’s piano played through a filter, some light vinyl scratches, and maybe somebody doing a sharp, breathy inhale. Can you walk me through that?

We were struggling with the first movement. It’s very different from the rest of the piece. We thought about it a lot and finally decided that the best thing for us to do would be to not play it — that we would make this arrangement, an all-recorded arrangement. I just recorded Ethan playing a piano, dry, doing the lines of the first movement. Then I just assembled it on a computer with various sounds, filtering, effects and samples. Synthesizers, drum machines — the intention was to be very true to the first movement but to create something that had a different atmosphere from the rest of the piece.

Does that make it difficult to perform live?

No, it makes is very easy because we just play the tape [laughs]. It’s turned out to be a really great dramatic device because you have this overture and the audience is just listening to this thing that emerges out of the dark. When we finally come in, we have a lot of impact.

When you performed the work live, how was the reaction? Did you get feedback from both the jazz and classical community?

The audience reaction in general has been very positive and it has been very gratifying to perform the piece. Of course, we’re just starting with something that’s so powerful to begin with. So in a way, the hard work is already done for us. We already have a great piece to play.

No riots?

[laughs] Not that we’ve detected.

This might be a silly question, but you’ve seen the choreography, right?

Actually, no. There are different versions of it. When we perform it live, it’s a bigger production with the lighting and everything. In a video, one of our friends who is a dancer, performs some of the original choreography of the sacrifice of the virgin. But I’ve never been to a production of the original ballet.

The music is self-explanatory in a way. We were just focusing on delivering the music to the best of our ability. All of the other stuff takes care of itself. In fact, we’ve been doing it with the Mark Morris Dance Group as well. Mark, who is one of the greatest choreographers of our time, just completely reworked it. He just sort of threw out the original concept of the ballet and created his own version from scratch. It has nothing to do with the original ballet or the original costumes.

And do people take to that pretty well?

Yes. It’s great and his choreography is brilliant. Again, the piece is so powerful and iconic and I think it’s a great way to approach it rather than trying to recreate the past. I don’t know if anyone knows exactly what the original choreography was. People have a pretty good idea, but why not just start from scratch and claim it for your own?

I know that you’ve had a classical background, but what about the other members of the Bad Plus, Ethan Iverson and Dave King?

We’ve all played classical music. Ethan is very serious about the classical piano repertoire. We’re all big fans of classical music. “Classical” — that gets a little slippery, like “what does that really mean?” If you know a bit of the repertoire, if you’ve played it on your instrument, one doesn’t need a piece of paper saying you have a degree in classical music performance. We all have a pretty good knowledge of it.

The band covered some other classical pieces on For All I Care. Is there room for you to do this kind of thing later on?

It’s certainly possible. Our next album will be all original music. I think we’ve set a precedent over the years that allows us to explore whatever we feel like. Classical music will continue to be an important influence on us. The Rite of Spring took an enormous amount of work and energy. We may not do anything [like it] in the very near future. Now that we’ve done it, now that we’ve played it, it’s been very gratifying. But it was a heck of a lot of work.

This next project of all originals, is everything written already?

It’s all recorded. “In the can”, as they say. It’s done. I believe we’re shooting for [a] fall [release].