The Bad Plus vs. Stravinsky

Jazz trio tackles a sprawling 20th-century classic

Igor Stravinsky famously claimed that "musical composition is selective improvisation." This genuinely practiced ethos is perhaps the key to understanding why the legendary Russian composer is a patron saint to the wider jazz community. Drop a needle on certain recordings by Alice Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, or Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and you'll find respectful quotations from Stravinsky's works. Charlie Parker supposedly once inserted a melody from "The Firebird Suite" into a solo when he spotted Stravinsky in his audience, causing the composer to spill his drink in excitement.

To this day, ambitious young improvisers transcribe and study entire Charlie Parker solos, bearing witness to his rapid-fire, in-the-moment "selective improvisation." Meanwhile, Stravinsky's work is often excerpted or paid tribute, but few musicians outside the classical realm dare to tackle an entire composition. In 2011 the Bad Plus, one of the world's most widely praised jazz trios, were commissioned by Duke University and Lincoln Center to attempt just such an undertaking. Nearly 100 years after "The Rite of Spring" caused riots to break out during its Parisian premiere, the group was tasked with performing the monolithic modern classic that's considered a sort of ground zero for contemporary classical music.

The Bad Plus — pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson, and drummer David King — are known for both their wildly punchy verve as improvisers and their fondness for what might be called "the modern songbook." The trio has recorded sensitive and quirky covers of hits by Nirvana, Black Sabbath, Blondie, and others: Yes, a Trojan Horse into mainstream ear buds, but clearly the consequence of genuine affection for the material. Like most 21st-century musicians, the Bad Plus pledges allegiance to a wider palette of eclectic inspirations rather than stratified genre lines.

"The Rite of Spring" was rather eclectic itself. A ballet that rankled conservative audiences with its wild costuming and choreography, Stravinsky's masterpiece smashed together two alien worlds. One consisted of folk melodies and ancient pagan iconography. The other comprised Stravinsky's violent, innovative rhythms. Dance united these two spheres, and when, in the ballet's climactic moment, a sacrificial virgin dances herself to death, only the most jarring musical accompaniment would be appropriate. While the music is thoroughly composed, the impulsive heart of improvisation beats within its thrashing rhythms.

Before being approached about the piece, the Bad Plus had previously tinkered with Stravinsky's music. The group offered a nod to his opera-oratorio "Oedipus Rex" on the album Give, and a movement from his ballet "Apollon Musagete" made it onto For All I Care.

"But now," says David King, speaking from his home in Minneapolis, "we had to wrestle with 'The Rite of Spring,' and really honor it, and really play it."

The Bad Plus has been a busy touring unit for almost 15 years, selling out weeklong runs at the Village Vanguard in New York and making the rounds in Europe. So busy, in fact, that its members were able to find time to begin their journey with "The Rite of Spring" only while on the road. "It took about nine months of practicing on the road, since we don't live in the same city," Kings says. Anderson and Iverson are presently Brooklynites. "It's kind of a drag to be on the road, practicing at sound checks," he adds. "Everyone spent months on his own, and then we got together and started wrestling it. We were worried on our own, but when we came together, it was like, 'Oh my god, we can maybe do it.' There was so much stress about wanting to honor it, and frankly we haven't been fans of the way it's been treated by jazz musicians ... taking sections and jamming on them. It was a stressful thing — it's still a stressful thing!"

It's for that reason that the group chooses not to chop up "The Rite of Spring" and insert portions of it into their usual sets.

The dense harmonies of "The Rite of Spring" were the least of their problems. Using a two-piano version that Stravinsky devised as a guide, pianist Iverson and bassist Anderson approached the piece on its face, drawing from the score's original notation. Though the work's primal rhythms are its most defining characteristics, there's relatively little traditional percussion included in the piece. As someone who makes his living behind a drum set, King's role in the Bad Plus' "Rite" would be open to interpretation. "We knew that the drums were gonna be the vital component for personalizing it," says King.

Obviously, the drums would be the most foreign instrument. "First, I tried to understand the rhythmic component of every moment of the piece," he says. "What does it want to be? You ask yourself: 'This section, if you transfer it to drums, wants to groove, or it wants to swing.' We wanted to play the piece down, and we didn't want to improvise on it, but play it in a way that only an improviser could play it."

Though the commission was originally only for a series of performances, the trio felt confident enough to document its work on a recording issued earlier this year by Sony Masterworks. There, the group's attempts to intuit a reading of the piece in a modern context yield a performance that is both faithful and personal. In each individual movement, the Bad Plus scribbles its signature. The pounding syncopations of "The Augurs of Spring" maintain their original aggression, but a few moments later, in the piece's fourth movement, "Spring Rounds," the trio re-imagines Stravinsky's languid music as Bill Evans-style modal jazz. The most personalized moments do indeed come from King's percussive choices, such as the robotic groove that propels the "Dance of the Earth," or the driving backbeat that pushes the "Sacrificial Dance" to its jarring conclusion.

On the current tour, the group has turned to its sprawling catalog of original material and recognizable pop tunes. This includes numbers from Inevitable Western, their second release of 2014, issued with shocking speed after their intense excursion through "The Rite of Spring." In comparison to Stravinsky's pagan juggernaut, the all-original music on Inevitable Western represents an exhalation of relief. The opening calm of "I Hear You" bears none of the original composition's discord, and "Epistolary Echoes" even includes some exceedingly playful handclaps. "We wanted the two to almost be companion pieces," King says. "We're certainly relieved to be doing what we do normally. We wanted 'The Rite' to be sitting on its own as an art piece, but have our music not too far behind when people have a perception of what we've been up to. We didn't want to lose sight of what we do."

After conquering an Everest like "The Rite of Spring," the Bad Plus demonstrated a willingness to attempt any musical obstacle course, an assertion that they can plausibly play anything, based on sheer will and skill. What they ultimately returned to, though, is that only the Bad Plus can be the Bad Plus. That's at the heart of all improvisation, and that's something that Igor Stravinsky knew well himself.