Can the Bad Plus find jazz in 'The Rite of Spring'?

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Chicago has encountered Igor Stravinsky's revolutionary ballet score "The Rite of Spring" several times during this centennial year of its infamous debut, which caused a riot at the Theatre des Champs-Elysses in Paris on May 29, 1913.

But surely none of the performances resembled the version that a hugely popular jazz-rock trio, the Bad Plus, will present Friday evening at the University of Chicago's Logan Center for the Arts.

For starters, Stravinsky's orchestral score – with its convulsing rhythms and shattering dissonances – will be delivered by the bare-bones instrumentation of Ethan Iverson's piano, Dave King's drums and Reid Anderson's bass. While they're trying to capture the savage intensity of Stravinsky's original, a series of abstract videos will play on two screens, just as an orchestra 100 years ago accompanied members of Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes during that notorious premiere of Vaslav Nijinsky's provocative choreography.

The very notion that a modern-day acoustic trio could even approach the fearsome power of Stravinsky's orchestral score may seem preposterous, until you consider how dynamic the composer's other works sound in similarly reduced form. Maurizio Pollini's Deutsche Grammophon recording of the composer's "Petrouchka," for instance, not only evokes the brilliance of the original but reveals more of its inner workings, if only because just one instrument is at play.

Stravinsky himself penned a version of "The Rite of Spring" – titled "Le Sacre du Pritemps" in the original French – for two pianists, suggesting that the Bad Plus at the very least is on solid ground in attempting this herculean task.

"I think it was an easy choice aesthetically," says Iverson, noting that the Bad Plus already had recorded Stravinsky's "Variation d'Apollon" on its "For All I Care" album.

"One of the things we talked about (while preparing 'Rite of Spring') was Beethoven's Seventh Symphony: How do you make questions of continuity and rhythm work, with piano, bass and drums there, without it being corny? I'm not saying it can't be done, but I don't think we can make that work.

"But Stravinsky's rhythmic language – it's related to what we do every gig, every night."

Indeed, the rock-tinged emphasis of the Bad Plus' work – which I've often found unpersuasive in a jazz context – somehow suits Stravinsky's score. The bluntness of the trio's playing, which has helped endear it to a mass audience, certainly is appropriate to the galvanic quality of "The Rite of Spring." You can hear as much on a YouTube recording of the trio's 2011 premiere of "On Sacred Ground," the title of its musical-video reinvention of "The Rite."

Or, as Iverson puts it, "The thing is that the Bad Plus has really embraced the influence of progressive rock and 20th century classical music. … So somehow, for whatever we're wanting to communicate, we've always had the tools that Stravinsky invented with that piece."

Not that learning the opus was easy.

"What's hard about it, I think intellectually (for) all three of us, the rhythms are constantly almost repeating – they don't repeat exactly." says Iverson. "It's always ostinatos, always jagged rhythms, always odd meters, but they're never quite the same from bar to bar.

"So it's a lot to try to remember. It's like 40 minutes of no repeats. That's the intellectual challenge, that's the hardest thing about it: Never being able to sit back and enjoy the rhythm more repetitively, idly. …

"We did work on it for about nine months – a lot of practicing. … I remember that when Reid and I made our two-part version for the second half, just for the videographer, listening back to it – and Dave hadn't even started playing drums with it – it struck me how much it sounded like the Bad Plus already."

But what's further striking about the trio's "On Sacred Ground" – and what may surprise Bad Plus fans and neophytes alike – is that this decidedly is not an improvised treatment of "The Rite of Spring." For the most part, the group offers a straightforward, literal reading of the score, even if drummer King had to create colors and motifs that Stravinsky obviously did not pen for drum set. Those who know the score will easily recognize the progress of the work, and those who don't will hear its basic contour, albeit reconceived for three jazz-rock musicians.

There are no big solos here, no swing-rhythm transformation of Stravinsky's score along the lines of, say, the Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn reinventions of Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" and Grieg's "Peer Gynt."

"That might be fun to do, but I question if it's really worth dismantling 'The Rite of Spring' that much – to improvise on the vamps," says Iverson. "The piece is so secure. For us, we just wanted to play it down," though Iverson concedes that he has thickened up some harmonies and added repeats when "there's something that's really great, and it almost feels like it goes by too fast."

But the music is just part of "On Sacred Ground," which includes 40-plus video segments that accompany the score (or vice versa).

" 'The Rite' is a narrative piece, it's a ballet, it's not an abstract piece of music – there's a story to it," says Cristina Guadalupe, who created the visuals with Noah Hutton, referring to the tale of pagan rituals culminating in human sacrifice.

"We really wanted to recall and make reference to that story, to the (original) visuals, but in a very abstract way."

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