The Bad Plus: The Rite of Spring

It should be no surprise that The Bad Plus, the bad-boy trio of polymorphous po-mo jazz, should take a stab at Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. The stunner is that they've pulled it off so masterfully. This disc (on the Sony Masterworks label) is no "jazzing up the classics" gimmick; it's the real thing, as legitimate a rendering—and, on its own terms, as walloping—as any out there.

Stravinsky himself might have approved. While putting the final touches on the symphony, he wrote a four-hand piano arrangement of Rite and played it with Debussy (now that would be a long-lost recording worth a hunt), so an arrangement for piano, bass, and drums is no radical departure, especially when done by a threesome as consummately adventurous as these guys.

Pianist Ethan Iverson came of age, steeped in 20th-century classical music, with a particular penchant for Stravinsky. Before joining The Bad Plus, he was the Mark Morris Dance Company's music director (significantly, Rite was originally written for a ballet) and knew nothing about modern rock. When his bandmates—bassist Reid Anderson and drummer David King, childhood friends who were more into melding jazz with Hendrix—proposed covering Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," Iverson confessed he'd never heard of the song or Kurt Cobain. In an interview that I did 11 years ago for the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section, Iverson said he liked the song's "raw, open fifths," adding, "Believe me, Stravinsky would have known how to shape Mr. Cobain's fifths."

This isn't the first time The Bad Plus have gone down this road. In their 2009 album For All I Care (in some ways, my favorite), they covered Stravinsky's Variation d'Apollon, as well as pieces by Ligeti and Babbitt (plus Nirvana, Pink Floyd, and the Bee Gees, among others).

But The Rite of Spring is a different beast entirely. Its Paris debut, in 1913, famously set off riots and rages. Stravinsky subtitled the symphony "Pictures of Pagan Russia in Two Parts," and nobody at the time had ever heard the clanging dissonances, sharp-shifting tempos, or pounding rhythms, at least not in a concert hall. But these are innovations that fit well with the elements of modern jazz, at least with musicians who have a feel for a vast range of idioms, and The Bad Plus has long demonstrated it has that.

What really comes through in this Rite of Spring (and I'm not the first to say so) is the pulse—something that few orchestral conductors can sustain through the storms that this half-hour-plus piece throws their way at every curve. But a drum kit helps, and a drummer like Dave King, master of the rock backbeat and the avant-garde shuffle (and a knack for gliding through both simultaneously), is vital. The same goes for bassist Reid Anderson, who knows just when and how to move from time-keeping to chord-comping to doubling or countering the melody to subbing for a cacophonous orchestra's burst of harmonizing.

The engineer adds a bit too much reverb or EQ, in an apparent effort to make the trio sound bigger (like an orchestra?), but it's not necessary. This is big music, in every sense, without the manipulation, and in most other ways, the sound is quite good.

John Atkinson's picture

Been listening to this all day today. I love the use of loops, samples from vinyl, and repeat echo in the opening to add an otherwordly quality to the sound of the piano.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile