On For All I Care, the Bad Plus famously covered the likes of Nirvana and Pink Floyd. Just as important, though, were the jazz trio’s forays into classical-music adaptation — as heard on miniature gems by Igor Stravinsky, Milton Babbitt and Gyorgy Ligeti.
The obvious next-level project would be for the band to learn and play a version of a big-canvas classical item. And so, after years of touring and workshopping, the Bad Plus now brings us a 40-minute performance of Stravinsky’s notorious, riot-starting ballet. The piece is so quick-changing — pulsing one minute, cooing the next, then doing both simultaneously — that the improv is mostly left to drummer Dave King (who, for instance, adds some exciting motorik drive to “Games of the Two Rival Tribes/Procession of the Sage”).
There are a few intriguing innovations in this arrangement, however. For instance: The very last seconds of the album show that you can’t expect a jazz power trio to turn down an opportunity to embellish a climax. And in the beginning, pianist Ethan Iverson plugs in with some digital-programming. (The scratchy detuning in parts of this movement may bring to mind some of the earliest recordings of the Rite.) Mostly, though, Iverson and bassist Reid Anderson have their hands full in doing justice to Stravinsky’s pile-up collision of various melodic and harmonic ideas.
By the time the whole trio digs into the jagged second movement, “The Augurs of Spring,” any doubts about the wisdom of the project should be set to rest. Wisely, the band doesn’t blitz through the hard-driving sections just because they can. There’s a bit of a slowdown happening at some junctures of the movement, which allows listeners to linger in the grind — something that just juices the drama for fans of the Rite. (If the band has decided it’s not kosher to write new melodies on top of Stravinsky, they will still improvise with BPM.)
This subtle intelligence keeps popping up in highlight after highlight of the piece. In “Spring Rounds,” we have Anderson sounding gorgeous, in his instrument’s high register, when taking responsibility for Stravinsky’s woodwind parts — while, at another moment, King adds a suave swing to the proceedings. These touches make you forgive missing aspects of the Rite’s fullness that don’t translate easily (as with the loudly morphing brass chords in the orchestral version of “Spring Rounds,” which the piano can’t quite replicate).
If you don’t know Stravinsky’s piece at all, this probably is not the place to start. (There are a truly intimidating number of recordings — not to mention debates over them — but Pierre Boulez conducing the Cleveland Orchestra on Deutsche Grammophon is an excellent modern choice.) On the other hand, if you’re already obsessed with the Rite, you have to hear this adaptation, which immediately vaults over the familiar two-pianist version as the best way to hear a non-symphonic take on Stravinsky’s early masterpiece.