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Stravinsky: Real and imagined with The Bad Plus

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 30, 2013: The Bad Plus has been making waves in the jazz world for the past decade with a mix of inventive original material and inventive reworkings of rock and pop songs. Want something different? The trio has played Nirvana (“Smells Like Teen Spirit”), Black Sabbath (“Iron Man’), Blondie (“Heart of Glass”), Tears for Fears (“Everybody Wants to Rule the World”) and Burt Bacharach (“This Guy’s in Love with You”).

The musicians – pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson and drummer David King – have also reworked classical compositions by Igor Stravinsky, György Ligeti and Milton Babbitt.

In recent years, the Bad Plus has been a staple attraction in the Jazz at the Bistro schedule every January, and the trio is scheduled to appear at the Bistro Jan. 8-11, 2014. But the Bad Plus will also make a special appearance Thursday, Oct. 3 at the Skip Viragh Center for the Arts at Chaminade College Preparatory School. It will present a reimagined version of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.”

The concert  -- a collaborative effort between Jazz St. Louis and St. Louis Symphony Community Partnerships – is titled “Stravinsky: Real and Imagined.” Bad Plus will close out the concert with the “imagined” element of the program, "On Sacred Ground: Stravinsky's Rite of Spring." And members of the Symphony will open the evening with the “real” – performing a variety of Stravinsky’s chamber works. (Check back tomorrow for more about the Symphony’s part of the program as well as SLSO’s other collaborative efforts in the community). The trio will also present a series of free sessions leading up to and giving indepth insight into the Thursday night performance.

According to Bad Plus pianist Iverson, the “reimagining” of “The Rite of Spring” came about three years ago, when the group was commissioned by Duke Performances at Duke University to choose a classical composition and retool it for contemporary audiences.

“We could have chosen any piece of music to work with,” Iverson said during a recent telephone conversation from his Brooklyn, N.Y., home. “But ‘Rite of Spring’ seemed most interesting to us. It seems that many jazz musicians have always loved it. I know that Elvin Jones and Herbie Hancock and all these heavy guys talked about loving ‘The Rite of Spring’."

As Iverson said, “The Rite of Spring” has had a strong connection among jazz musicians. Hubert Laws and Larry Coryell have both recorded their versions of Stravinsky’s work, and a diverse array of other musicians - rom Alice Coltrane, Ornette Colman and Charlie Parker – quoted elements of the composition frequently.

Iverson also sees a strong “Rite of Spring” influence on bands in the 1960s and ‘70s.

“I also think “Rite of Spring’ can be seen as an ancestor of prog rock – a genre that uses a lot of angular rhythms and odd meters,” he said. “I think there are definitely roots of all that in Stravinsky’s rhythms and meters. The Bad Plus is deeply influenced by prog rock. It's very much a part of our music.”

Obviously, a jazz trio of piano, bass and drums can’t hope to approach the sheer power of a full orchestra with a 60-piece string section, as called for by Stravinsky in his score. Instead, the Bad Plus focused on other aspects but also on the music.

"We’re three musicians, so there are things we just can't play," Iverson said. "We can't realize all the lines of counterpoint that you can with an orchestra. We didn't reorganize anything in the piece, with a few exceptions. For the most part, it's faithful to the pitches Stravinsky wrote.

“We had a year to work on it before the first performance at Duke, and once we listened to a rehearsal tape of the second half that we had played, we realized it sounded like us – the Bad Plus. So from there, we knew we could make it work.”

Since its world premiere at Duke in March 2011, the Bad Plus has performed  "On Sacred Ground" about 30 times, according to Iverson.

“We’ve toured it in Ireland and Canada,” he said, “and we've played it in America with dance companies and on our own – but always with visual accompaniment. That was actually required in the commission from Duke Performances. They wanted a multi-media performance, so we worked with Cristina Guadalupe and Noah Hutton, and they came up with that element. Noah will actually be here in St. Louis to “VJ” the performance.”

Iverson, who has studied and listened to recordings of all Stravinsky’s works, is especially interested in hearing the Symphony musicians perform the opening segment of the Oct. 3 performance.

“Everything on their part of the program is great music,” Iverson said. “The Septet is a major work and very difficult to perform. And some of the other pieces I’ve never heard performed live. So I’m really looking forward to that.”

For more information about the Bad Plus, go to: www.thebadplus.com.

Terry Perkins is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. He has written for the St. Louis Beacon since 2009. Terry's other writing credits in St. Louis include: the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis American, the Riverfront Times, and St. Louis magazine. Nationally, Terry writes for DownBeat magazine, OxfordAmerican.org and RollingStone.com, among others.

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