The Bad Plus Prepares to “Spring”

by Peter Blackstock on March 28, 2011

the Bad Plus

Two nights ago, the Bad Plus unleashed the world premiere of their jazz renovation of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring upon a packed house at Reynolds Theater. We’ll have a review of this remarkable event for you tomorrow, but first, we offer a bit of context by way of a public conversation between the Bad Plus and UNC professor Mark Katz that took place on Thursday, March 24.

“The hook is that we are improvising jazz musicians playing classical music, but we’re not improvising,” drummer Dave King told a small audience gathered on the stage of Reynolds Theater, explaining exactly how the adventurous trio approached the daunting challenge of reinterpreting Stravinsky’s landmark ballet score.

The 90-minute session with the musicians—King, pianist Ethan Iverson, and bassist Reid Anderson—proved illuminating, with snippets of performance interspersed in a dialogue with the audience and moderator. Small passages of the piece took shape before our very eyes: In the session’s most revelatory moment, the trio treated the audience to what amounted to a private rehearsal of “Augurs of Spring,” a section of the piece they’d been in the midst of reworking in afternoon rehearsals. “We were doing it one way for seven months, and we just changed it today,” King disclosed.

The musicians allowed us to compare and contrast: First, they played the section as they’d originally worked it out, and then they tried the new take. It must have been helpful for them, too, as we could provide immediate feedback. The sentiment seemed pretty much universal: What they’d come up with in the day’s rehearsals was noticeably more “exciting” (to use the word uttered by two audience members, and precisely the one I’d had in my mind as well). “That’s what we’re trying to do, so that’s good,” King said, sounding grateful for the response. “That was a pretty good run-through right there. You can’t play this thing half-assed, so we’re just kind of going for it.”

This spirit of bold reinvention is at the heart of the endeavor—a massive undertaking for a group that earned attention and acclaim from its reworkings of pop material by the likes of Nirvana and Pink Floyd—and it was also the dominant thread of Thursday’s discussion. Much of the back-and-forth seemed caught up in the question of whether Saturday’s performance was ultimately still a Stravinsky work at its core, or whether the point was for the Bad Plus to make it their own.

Ethan Iverson (photo: Cristina Guadalupe)

The musicians’ comments reflected how the result straddles that line. “There’s a tradition in jazz to play a famous melody and then improvise on it, but we wanted to  not do that,” observed Iverson. However, when asked whether those in Saturday’s audience would be able to tell that the piece they’re hearing is a Stravinsky composition, he allowed, “I think you would know.” Anderson remarked that “we’ve given this piece a lot of respect, but we’re going to leave the respect at the door now”—and yet, he stressed, “It seems to me to be a bit dangerous to say, ‘Every moment must be ours.’ We’re here to play The Rite of Spring.”

In the end, moderator Katz came to a sound conclusion. As someone who harbors a sincere appreciation for both the original composition and the musicians, he said of Saturday’s impending performance, “I get to hear both. I don’t worry about separating it, and I don’t know if you can.”

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