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Music Review: The Bad Plus – ‘The Rite of Spring’

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The Bad Plus

Crossing genres to do a cover is a difficult enterprise. It requires detailed attention to the source material, as well as an understanding of the core elements of the original (the “spirit”, if you will). The idea is that when you do an interpretation of the original, the resulting product is one that reflects the performer’s choices in response to the original. This is what makes interpretation a specifically artistic enterprise – the resulting product reflects the artist’s labor in reacting to the original work. No doubt, jazz musicians are familiar with the concept of interpretation – after all improvisation is just a form of interpretation. Thelonious Monk understood all of this in his advice to musicians, pleading “Sing the melody in your head when you play. Stop playing all that bullshit! Play the melody!”

The idea of a jazz trio interpreting a work like The Rite of Spring is intriguing (though not entirely new, as Stravinsky himself wrote a piece for jazz band). Stravinsky’s most well-known work is one that not only uses an entire orchestra, but Stravinsky puts the orchestra through its paces, both technically and artistically. Casual listeners oftentimes refer to the work as “cacophonous” and mention that tired chestnut about the riots it caused at its 1913 premiere. However, the work contains moments of serenity, haunting textures, and lonely meandering melodies – elements that make it a more emotionally complicated work deserving of closer inspection.

While The Bad Plus deserves credit for taking on such a prohibitive work, the resulting product serves more as a lesson in the difficulties of interpretation than an engaging take on a  classic.  Take the introduction to “Adoration of the Earth”, for example. Stravinksy famously gave the opening solo to the bassoon, commanding a pitch that stretches the bassoon’s range, lending a yearning quality to the beginning. The Bad Plus replace it with Iverson’s straightforward piano, enhanced with EQ effects, and an almost-too-literal recording of a heartbeat. The heartbeat reads more as reference than expression, and in any case the effects and sampling are virtually absent from the entire rest of the work, giving the feeling that it was tacked on. It’s an opening with some interesting sonic qualities but not much else in the way of engagement or attention to the spirit of the original.

The main difficulties arise from the limitations of the performers and their instruments. One of the things that makes Stravinsky unique is the way in which he contrasts long flowing melody lines with staccato. It’s evident throughout the original Rite of Spring (as well as Stravinsky’s other works), but absent in The Bad Plus’ rendition – not because of artistic choice, but because of Iverson’s inability to put together a connected melody. These limitations are magnified when the work calls for the weaving together of multiple connected melodies.

Throughout, King and Iverson fail to convey much intensity. Many of the strident dissonant strikes in the original are delivered with a surprising tameness. (To be fair, this may be more of a recording issue than a performance one). Anderson plays through several haunting solos with a lead thumb that makes you wonder if he should have used a bow instead. Iverson is technically unable to play the fast doubling of notes in sections that give some of the melodies a frenzied quality, instead opting for a more casual version. The missteps give the impression that they are content with just playing (most of) the notes, and happy that they succeeded in merely doing a rendition of The Rite of Spring.

And that is where the listener is left when it’s all over. Certainly, they succeed in doing a rendition of The Rite of Spring – a praiseworthy feat in and of itself. It’s just not clear that the feat is worth a second listen.

The Rite of Spring is available from Sony Masterworks on CD and digital.

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About Fritz Chrysler

Fritz Chrysler is a classically trained concert violinist, with awards on the national and international level. He has a PhD in Philosophy and taught classes in Ethics and Philosophy of Art.
  • bliffle

    “Rite…” is a masterpiece and Stravinski a genius. I first heard “Rite” in 1950 when I was 13 and somewhat experienced vocally and instrumentally, slightly familiar with classics and exploring cool jazz. I went for “Rite” immediately, getting a “Music Appreciation” LP recording conducted by Leonard Bernstein with Lennies commentary on the flip side. Blasted out over my homemade phonograph (even the tonearm was fabbed in my parents basement from war-surplus materials and simple hand tools) it must have driven them nuts as the unfamiliar sounds coursed down thru the house so I could hear it EVERYWHERE! But they were immigrants and they knew that this was good stuff for a child to embrace, just as they believed in a college education. And they were right!

    “Rite” is always interesting to come back to and hear.

    Incidentally, Fazil Say has an excellent recording of his piano performance of “Rite” which is not only a great performance, but gives one an idea of Stravinski since he composed at the piano. Joffrey Ballet recreated the original ballet a few years ago. Very interesting, especially when old Parisians say that the riot was because of the ballet more than the music.

    • Fritz Chrysler

      i will have to take a listen to that. I think a lot of the issues with this recording is the pianist’s jazz training – they tend to peck more at the piano and don’t really have the training to play long legato lines or to play multiple lines distinctly – something classical pianists get trained on like crazy . I imagine Say does a better job with that – though I’ll have to check it out.