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.
“One of those things is that we could play all those rhythms and treat those with more of that natural undulation that can occur between three musicians who know each other’s feel and time so well that they can manipulate things in a way that maybe classical musicians would have a harder time with.
“We started to inject our own thing, playing the piece but with a definite tempo and medo-metric style of modulations occurring within the rhythms that are sort of a signature of ours. We tried to find the strengths and weaknesses of what we could do and what we couldn’t do, and work from there.”
“It’s still incredibly sophisticated,” says Reid Anderson. “It’s hard to imagine a classical orchestra in the early 20th century being able to deal with it at all.” It hasn’t all aged beautifully, though. “Frankly, there are some things that are a bit corny that we had to confront,” says Anderson carefully. “Part of taking on this piece is the whole process of creating this orchestration of our instrumentation . . . and saying, ‘This part is not the hippest thing in the world, how can we change it or bring something to it so it can be more what we want it to be.’”
This ambition has given The Bad Plus something of a notorious reputation in the relatively strait-laced jazz world. “We feel like our connection is natural and it’s an old connection that we have as people,” says Dave King. “If I was to analyse it, which I try not to, I think our greatest asset is our unselfconsciousness. We don’t really discuss much. We have to confront some stuff in the wake of some of the controversy we’ve caused.” Even from down the phone line from Iverson’s kitchen in San Francisco you can sense the collective eye rolls.
“We love the idea of being controversial because all our heroes were that way, but we never really think of ourselves as outsiders,” King says.
“That’s one of the secrets to our continued growth and the fact that we are still together after 12 years. When we set out on this thing we didn’t think” – here, King adopts a wide-eyed voice of innocence – “people are going to pay attention to the fact that we play Aphex Twin. We just like that song and these days more of our original tunes get called out for as encores.”
That’s fair enough, but when King announces on his mildly deranged blog that he wants to pepper-spray the members of indie rock band Foster the People, is it any wonder people are a little wary?
“Okay I’ll tell you,” he says, his voice dropping a gear to full storybook mode. “I hadn’t watched Saturday Night Live in a long time and it’s got quite a coveted musical spot. It’s been a dream of mine to play some Bad Plus music on Saturday Night Live. They used to have some fringe artists on in the 1980s, people like Philip Glass and Captain Beefheart. But now it has been dominated by what’s hip in rock.
“I turned SNL on and this band came on.” At this point, rational storybook Dave turns to slightly scary Dave and the volume starts to build, above the background sniggering of the other pair. “I couldn’t actually believe how awful it was, and the singer was so awful and they are just jumping around, putting on their little show, and everyone was so incredibly satisfied with this shit.
“I can’t believe how f**king lame this is. That’s all. Good pop is good pop, I love real pop music and there is some really lame jazz out there, but this was particularly hideous. And I wondered, who the f**k are these guys, and I looked it up and they are Foster the People.”
Slightly scary Dave has now left the building, and shouty drummer Dave is in the house. The sniggering refuses to die down. “Then I read an article about the singer and he is talking off about how lame James Taylor is, and how he doesn’t want to be like James Taylor playing one hit song the rest of his life.”
Now, shouty drummer Dave has built up a fine head of steam and has decided to take a solo. “You just said James Taylor had one hit song? You’re ripping on James Taylor and this motherf**ker has one hit song and has not proven anything to the world at all? And at this moment I was like, man, I just want to fight this guy.”
And this, reader, is where you come in. “So I’m just putting it out into the world, maybe you can help me out – the Irish are a proud fighting people and I am Irish, by the way, and I am just going to say, ‘Why don’t the Bad Plus play Saturday Night Live?’ With Ireland’s help, we can get on that show.”
We’ll see what we can do. In the meantime, someone might want to warn Foster the People.
The Bad Plus perform On Sacred Ground: Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in Belfast tonight, Dublin tomorrow, and then tour to Sligo, Kildare, Limerick and Cork. Thebadplus.com
Online Bad Plus pointers
The Bad Plus cover Aphex Twin’s Flim iti.ms/MsZDpV
An hour-long concert of The Bad Plus at the Village Vanguard in New York from 2004 iti.ms/Kd9CjW
The Bad Plus’s take on Everybody Wants to Rule the World by Tears for Fears, from 2008 iti.ms/KdaZiz
Variation d’Appollon by Igor Stravinsky as played by The Bad Plus on their 2009 album For All I Care iti.ms/Mt47gm