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Sun March 16, 2014
First Listen: The Bad Plus, 'The Rite Of Spring'
Originally published on Wed March 26, 2014 9:40 am
This is a recording of a jazz trio playing the score to a 101-year-old ballet. It is not a "jazzing the classics" record or a "fantasia on the themes of" sort of project. It is a band translating one of the landmark works in music history to piano, bass and drum set, and doing it as literally as possible.
This makes more sense than meets the eye. For one, the ballet is Igor Stravinsky's The Rite Of Spring, an immensely complex and cacophonous work which, paired with appropriately violent choreography, caused a confused audience to riot during its 1913 premiere. That tremendous potency came to be recognized over time as mastery, in part by modern jazz musicians with big ears. It's a rhythmically pulsing, frequently irregular work based on folk music — akin to the way improvisers swing, syncopate and draw from African-American folklore.
Of all the jazz groups to tackle such a hurdle, The Bad Plus seems like the right horse for the course. It's a group with an affinity for quirky, proggy original music; a reputation for transformative covers of anything from 20th-century classical music to Aphex Twin; an evident love for music history, whether jazz or otherwise. It's also been touring frequently for well over a decade, with sizeable fan base and media attention, making it possible for a few major performing arts institutions to commission it for something of this scope. So they did, at first performing their adaptation of the Rite with a video installation and later with a dance company. Now the music is on record for anyone to hear.
For such a loud orchestral undertaking, the Rite reduces surprisingly well to three dudes. Whether the herky-jerky action of the "Sacrificial Dance" or "Glorification of the Chosen One," or perhaps the unsettled majesty of "The Augurs of Spring" or the "Spring Rounds," a proper sound system gives you the gloriously noisy gist of it.
But this Rite isn't totally without its artistic liberties. Ethan Iverson (piano) and Reid Anderson (bass) supply the melodic and harmonic information, leaving Dave King (drums) to play a bit of free safety. King's beatmaking (and in the opening section, Anderson's electronic programming) often acts in a capacity Stravinsky never scripted, buoying with a backbeat or a bit of snare commentary or even ride-cymbal swing. His contribution certainly remains loyal to the mood of Stravinsky's fever dream; at the same time, it's also the key to why this still sounds like Bad Plus music, too.