Do What’s Rite for the Music: Le Sacre du BAD PLUS

by Jason Haaheim, principal timpanist

The Rite of Spring is a seminal colossus of the western canon, and so it’s only natural that the audacious prog-jazz trio The Bad Plus would do a cover of the entire work. MET Orchestra Musicians Jason Haaheim and Rob Knopper sat down with Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson to discuss the process of adapting Stravinsky’s masterwork for their unique trio.

Full confession: I’m a huge Bad Plus fanboy, and have been since their first album in 2003. They were a major influence on the jazzish quartet I played with in Chicago, and I’ve worn my t-shirt to countless Bad Plus live shows. Like Rocky’s “Eye of the Tiger,” their track “Never Stop” became my personal audition warmup-room anthem. In fact, it was the last thing I listened to on my iPod before playing the final round of my Met audition. Like I said: fanboy.

It's difficult to succinctly categorize the output of the Bad Plus. The term “prog-jazz” is frequently thrown around, but I usually tell friends something like, "take the improvisational ethos of late Coltrane, blend it with the complexity and mixed-meter craziness of ‘70s prog-rock, and polish it off with 20th-century chamber music sensibilities." That starts to approximate the live show experience...along with a puckish and delightfully irreverent approach to cover tunes that leads modern standards like Smells Like Teen Spirit and Iron Man.

Interested? I thought so.

In 2014, the intrepid Bad Plussers started attracting broader attention from the classical music nerd community: they released "The Rite of Spring" as a faithful measure-by-measure realization of the original, transcribed for their trio, and channeling their distinctive sound. (Downbeat magazine ranked them second in “2014 Jazz Groups of the Year,” and ranked their Rite of Spring as one of the top albums of 2014.) It’s the ultimate cover tune of a primal virgin sacrifice. I was instantly hooked. I stayed up until 2:30 AM the night it was released, listening to it no fewer than three complete times.

There’s something very endearing to me in the contrast between the audacity of their musical projects and their low-key, reserved, and good-natured presence onstage (and off). Perhaps it’s the midwestern roots we share: bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King both grew up in Golden Valley, MN, while I grew up just 20 short miles away in Chaska. Pianist Ethan Iverson grew up “across the border” in Menomonie, WI, where he played percussion in his high school band. “My favorite thing was to smash the cymbals in Shostakovich's Festive Overture," he recalled. “I also played marimba very badly on lots of stuff.” That’s totally forgivable because Ethan is a monster pianist, which is necessary when you’re trying to consolidate something like The Rite into a trio format.

And what’s that process like for a band like this? “The reason that we're still together after 13 years is the fact that no one ever steps into a musical director role,” said Iverson. “We always let each other have space. The tunes themselves are generated by a composer, but then we cede that to ‘the machine of the band.’ To some extent the composer has right of way because it's their piece, but in a sense we all still get to do what we think is right for the music.”

Doing what’s right for the music - that resonated with us deeply. And it’s the perfect guiding ethos with which to adapt something like The Rite. As MET Orchestra Musicians, we make thousands of little choices in every performance in order to do what we believe is right for the music. We are all referencing a personal, idealized version of the music, which is precisely what Ethan, Reid, and Dave did: they looked to their ideal Rite and channeled it through their sound.

Tackling something as massive as The Rite of Spring could be paralysis-inducing. But the work itself has taken on a deeper life in which, over thousands of orchestral performances, innumerable players have made decisions about what was right for the music. These decisions span a wide range, and it’s difficult to objectively label any of them as “correct” or “incorrect.” So, with a touchstone work like Rite, this has the effect of carving out a wide swath of potential interpretation. “There's a lot of Rite of Spring in the atmosphere already. Personally, I felt a little freedom because The Rite's been in the culture so much,” said Ethan. Moreover, because it has reverberated with so many people, “there's a profound echo in the culture with The Rite of Spring, so isn’t there room to investigate something that has this sort of echo? It felt like there was room aesthetically. It could take it. So let's get in there!” And isn't that the mark of a truly great work? Something that enters the cultural consciousness to the point that it can successfully venture beyond the parameters of its origins, and not just hold up but thrive under different interpretations, with different lenses in different genres? I have to believe that if Stravinsky could've sat listening along at the Jazz Standard, he would have been saying “yeah man, they get it.”

But what about some of the particular challenges of adaptation? There’s no bassoon in the Bad Plus, so how do you even start the thing? “It reminded me of this piano player I read about, Oscar Levant,” Ethan offered. “He was a New York character from the ‘30s and ‘40s, and had an opinion about everything. He talked about Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, and that for all it's fame it's actually sorta hard to start, as you guys know!” (Yeah, we definitely know.) “So he was with some conductors and they asked him ‘Well how would you conduct the first four bars?’ And Oscar said, ‘I’d leave out the first four bars.’”

Ha! But not so much an option with Rite. Ethan admitted, “[The introduction, which starts with solo bassoon and gradually adds layers of instruments,] is easily the thickest of the movements. The level of counterpoint is really hard - it was difficult to figure out how we could present it.”  Rob nicely summarized the conundrum: “Going into it, I know orchestrally what to expect from the introduction, but you guys just start by acknowledging the fact that nobody knows how it should start! It’s this single note, repeated over and over, kind of like itself is hesitant to start the actual melody.” It’s eerie, and it’s very effective. But how to proceed from there? Ethan continued, “We decided to do this electronic treatment - [bassist Reid Anderson] is a genius in the studio - so I tracked everything that Stravinsky wrote by overdubbing. And then Reid went back and created this soundscape that has all the relevant information.”

Once they’d solved the puzzle of the introduction, “there were a few times I think we expected to deviate more from the score than we thought, because there were a couple of moments where we were like, ‘How are we going to make it work, really?’ But then we ended up just following the score. The score had all the answers. And in a way, [drummer Dave King] had the biggest responsibility, to find how to put drumset and grooves in a piece that has [no drum kit]!” As a timpanist, this was a fascinating point for me: The Rite of Spring is obviously incredibly rhythmic, and yet there's no obvious drum kit part. Ethan agreed: “Yeah, the danger with crossover projects like these is essentially rhythmic - a ‘drum language’ is what makes it hard. The thing about The Rite of Spring is that it connects to the future so deeply. In 1913, [Stravinsky] wrote all these odd meters and expressionistic type material. And there is drum set in later odd-meter music, and there is drum set in later expressionistic music. Duke Ellington did that. Genesis did that. Free jazz did that. So there's sort of a reference point for the drums to be able to be put in this music.” And Ethan would know - he’s become an expert historian of the jazz scene popularized through his blog Do the Math, known for its deep musicological dives into jazz history and cross-pollinating influences.

I’m admittedly biased, but I think their overall results are spectacular. Stepping back, Rob then asked, “Just as you guys were starting out in 2000, if someone had told you ‘In 2014, you guys are going to put out Rite of Spring,’ would you have been flabbergasted? Or would you have said ‘Yeah, that sounds about right?’” After a long pause, Ethan replied, “I don't know. But I'll tell you this much: modernist classical music has always lurked in the sound of the Bad Plus. We've all been interested in doing it. In our own compositions and our perspective on music, one thing I think that's been our job is to put some of that modernist classical ethos into what we do, and into modern jazz. So in that sense, it was an obvious type of move. And the thing I like about listening to our Rite of Spring is that it sounds like a Bad Plus record to me!”

Indeed: this project hews closely to their founding ethos - one that recognizes a modern canon of standards, and then explores them in a prog-jazz idiom. And it came about organically in a way with which many gigging musicians can surely empathize: “The simplest thing, man, is at the first gig we didn't have enough original music!” Ethan recalls. “We would usually play jazz standards, but we didn't really feel like playing standards anymore, so [Reid and Dave] suggested ‘Why don't we play some of this other common repertoire?’ The original impetus of it was very pure.” But it was also essential. Ethan related it to the way the original Coltrane quartet found its voice: “It's really ironic, in a way, that Coltrane had this huge hit with ‘My Favorite Things’ - I mean, the movie wasn't even out yet, it was a Broadway musical -- and that was the tune where his classic quartet really got their language together. They were already playing like themselves, but it was this Broadway musical tune that really enabled them to find their thing. And the audience reception was, ‘Oh, I know this tune, so let me check these guys out!’”

L to R: Rob Knopper, MET Orchestra percussionist; Jason Haaheim, MET Orchestra principal timpanist; Dave King, Bad Plus drummer; Reid Anderson, Bad Plus bassist; Ethan Iverson, Bad Plus pianist; Chris Hall, MET Orchestra tubist (after a show at the Jazz Standard)

L to R: Rob Knopper, MET Orchestra percussionist; Jason Haaheim, MET Orchestra principal timpanist; Dave King, Bad Plus drummer; Reid Anderson, Bad Plus bassist; Ethan Iverson, Bad Plus pianist; Chris Hall, MET Orchestra tubist (after a show at the Jazz Standard)

I asked, “With Coltrane, that approach let them solidify their quartet. Did you guys feel that with some of your first covers? Like, you start playing ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ - arguably the great anthem of the ‘90s grunge movement - and all of a sudden there’s this recognition that ‘Oh yeah! This the DNA of the Bad Plus!’”

“Oh yeah. I felt it right away on those first few covers,” Ethan confirmed. “‘This really is our language.’ I felt it right away. Of course, original compositions are always important, too...but definitely, from a philosophical point of view, I felt it.”

This led us to an interesting revelation of the common ground shared by opera performers and jazz players alike: the gateway drug of the catchy tune. Coltrane found it. The Bad Plus found it. Puccini and Verdi and Mozart definitely found it. “In a way we exist in very different worlds,” I offered. “Rob and I - we're in opera, and that's a totally different animal and tradition. But in a way, we have common ground in that ‘the first show’ can be kind of overwhelming for newcomers. In jazz, there’s the whole concept of improvisation, and in opera a newcomer might be like, ‘Whoa, what is going on here?’ There's all this stuff: sets, singers, orchestra, costumes, intricate plots...but then, they get to Largo al factotum [from The Barber of Seville] and they're like ‘Oh! That's from Bugs Bunny!’ It's something they can hang their hat on. I love the idea that somebody at one of your shows could hang their hat on the Nirvana tune they recognize, and then sit through a mesmerizing account of Spring Rounds [from The Rite of Spring]. They come away thinking, ‘Oh! This Stravinsky guy. Maybe he’s worth checking out, too!’”

Ethan continued this line of thinking: “[The nice thing] about The Rite of Spring - and playing it for the Bad Plus audience - is that it's a famous work, but how often do we actually sit down and listen to it? I mean, we're not [specifically] out there to educate - we love this music, we're playing it because we want to play it, and we want you to like it, too. But sometimes there's maybe a side-effect that someone who likes this checks out some Stravinsky themselves, or some of the other people we've dealt with [like Ligeti or Babbit].”

Moreover, jazz has this broader connection back to opera: “Opera generates the tunes,” Ethan continued, “and a real precedent for jazz improvisation were the operatic fantasies of people like Franz Liszt. But it wasn't just Liszt - everybody in the 19th century wrote their variations on famous tunes of operas, or even collections of themes from the operas. Mozart and Beethoven did it, certainly. Chopin too, many others...but the idea of taking this tune and improvising on it goes back [a long way]. And then Louis Armstrong took the hits off the radio and improvised on them.”

Modernist classical music and opera may lurk in the sound of the Bad Plus, but Ethan also loves to lurk at the Met. “The thing I really love is 20th-century opera. I think theater and song really gives the context for the modernist ethos. I like Schoenberg generally, but my favorite Schoenberg I've ever seen was at the Met - Moses und Aron - because I thought, ‘This is why this music really makes sense.’ When you add sex and death onstage, it becomes this whole other thing. It's like the theater makes Schoenberg happen. Same thing of course with those Berg operas [Wozzeck and Lulu], and other 20th-century work as well. For myself, man, one of my favorite things to do is go to the Met and see one of those crazy modernist operas.”