Spring time for The Bad Plus
US jazz trio The Bad Plus have a reputation for tackling challenging music, but will Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ be a step too far, and why do they want to pepper-spray a particular US rock band, asks LAURENCE MACKIN
THERE IS A story about composer Igor Stravinsky and saxophonist Charlie Parker that has become part of jazz lore (Alex Ross mentions it in his superb book The Rest is Noise).
Parker had heard Stravinsky’s astonishing The Rite of Spring and, in 1951, while playing a concert in New York’s Birdland, he spotted Stravinsky in the crowd. He immediately worked some motifs from the composer’s Firebird into the tune he was playing, Koko. Stravinsky was so delighted that, in the words of Ross, he “spilled his scotch in ecstasy”.
So jazz and Stravinsky, and in particular the Rite, have previous, and now that history is about to get another chapter. In addition to their original material, jazz piano trio The Bad Plus have a reputation for taking challenging music and making it their own. Their early acclaim was due in large part to their treatment of other people’s music, from a smart treatment of Aphex Twin’s Flim to a sublime take on Tears for Fears’ Everybody Wants to Rule the World. Now, the US trio are taking on The Rite of Spring, which they’ll be playing in a multimedia show at several venues in Ireland over the next week, along with a set of their own tunes. Even for musicians of their experience, Stravinsky’s work is an entirely different and more intricate prospect.
“The idea was brought up because we had done some Stravinsky before,” says bassist Reid Anderson, with the tone of a man wondering what he has let himself in for. “We tried to figure out anything but The Rite of Spring because it was just so daunting to take it on, but in the end this was the best idea and we went with it.
“The first question people ask, especially if they are jazz, is, ‘Are you playing the whole thing?’, because there is a tradition of just taking a few scenes and improvising on them. But we play the score down. It was a challenge to make it our own,” says pianist Ethan Iverson.
The band have never been shy of tackling iconic works, and they’re more concerned with making their approach sound interesting than being tethered to the original.
“We have to confront that issue of making it our own and trying to respect it and what it is,” insists drummer Dave King. “The main challenge is how to incorporate drum set and acoustic bass . . . you are conscious of how influential the piece was on all 20th-century music. We had to make peace with the idea that we had to strip certain things away and add certain things that our instrumentation and our experience allows.