Here’s how Alex Ross, author of the indispensable account of twentieth century classical music described “Dance of the Earth,” the first part of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, which will be performed by the power jazz trio The Bad Plus on Friday, March 30 at Cornell University’s Bailey Hall: “The Rite … prophesized a new type of popular art — low-down yet sophisticated, smartly savage, style and muscle intertwined.” Ross continues, “For much of the nineteenth century, music had been a theater of the mind; now composers would create a music of the body. Melodies would follow the patterns of speech; rhythms would match the energy of dance; musical forms would be more concise and clear; sonorities would have the hardness of life as it is really lived.”
And though almost a century later (the Paris premiere of Rite of Spring occurred on an unusually hot day May 29, 1913) the most apt inheritors might be Bjork, Radiohead, or Kanye West, there’s a case to be made for folks like Dave Douglas, Brad Mehldau, Jason Moran, and The Bad Plus.
Like Dave Douglas, Brad Mehldau, and Jason Moran, The Bad Plus reach from outside of jazz material, incorporating pop, rock and avant-garde into their repertoire. But unlike those other jazz musicians, who have all visited Cornell University in the past few years, and who often jazzify material from other genres, The Bad Plus makes the material their own.
Bass player Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King have known each other since they were teenagers, but went their separate ways for several years. They met pianist Ethan Iverson in 1989 – he was Mark Morris’ music director – and recorded their first eponymous album in 1990. For the past ten years the group has created an uncompromising body of work by shattering musical convention. They rose to fame covering Nirvana, Abba, and Rodgers & Hart on the same album, but have recently incorporated contemporary classical music like Stravinsky and Gyorgy Ligeti into their records.
While the bulk of their output has been originals, they have famously deconstructed covers in the pop, rock, electronic, and classical idioms. Their belief in a band ethos and “avant-garde populism” has placed them at the forefront of a new instrumental music movement, resulting in ever-growing audiences throughout the world. And though their most recent record, the impressive road show “Never Stop,” consisted entirely of originals, the group will perform a commissioned piece just in time for spring.
The Cornell Concert Series first brought The Bad Plus to campus in spring 2007 with the Mark Morris Dance Group. The elements of springtime and dance are feature again on their return to Cornell this month, but in a much more abstract state, to perform On Sacred Ground, a reimagining of Stravinsky’s orchestral work, as well as Bad Plus material.
“The work with Mark Morris would be the template on some level,” drummer Dave King said by phone. “We have all played a lot of contemporary classical music, and on ‘For All I Care’ we have three contemporary classical pieces. The commission came from a fan of the classical material on that record.”
King went on: “When we were asked to do a larger piece, we decided that the Rite would be the obvious choice. Because it is so iconic, we wanted to honor the Rite and not butcher it. It got a little painful, because once we thought about it, it became more daunting.” He continued: “It took about nine months of rehearsing, and we worked with a couple of different scores and a couple of different versions. But in the end, we really play the piece.”
Co-commissioned by Duke Performances and New York’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, On Sacred Ground premiered at Duke University in March 2011.
As part of their rendition, the trio incorporates a multimedia presentation created by filmmakers Cristina Guadeloupe and Noah Hutton. The Bad Plus’ brilliant transformation proves that there are still vital musical lessons to be learned from the piece that caused a riot at its Paris premiere nearly 100 years ago.
“The two New York filmmakers took it on independently of us, and they did a film without hearing our version,” King noted. “We wanted this not to be just a Bad Plus show … and really just be an homage to what everybody considers one of the great musical moments of the 20th century.”
Asked about how the band sees itself in the landscape of other musical performers like Douglas, Mehldau and Moran, King responded: “We love all of those guys. But I think one way that separates us is the way that our records sound. We take the time to go out of the jazz canon … Our ‘prog’ record was produced by the same guy who produced AC/DC’s Back in Black [Mutt Lange].”
“We are not trying to make rock records, but we do pay homage to it. For us, the template becomes a song we like, and not turn it into a vehicle for a long piano solo,” said King. “We call ourselves an avant garde song band.” •
Tickets for the Bad Plus at Bailey Hall are available for $25-35 (adults), and $17 for Cornell students, at the Ticket Center, 171 The Commons (607) 273-4497. For more information, please visit cornellconcertseries.com or baileytickets.com. Free evening parking is available at the Forest Home garage and Schoellkopf Field garage.