10:29 am Aug. 2, 20121
Ethan Iverson couldn't resist poking fun at his interviewer.
“I actually fell asleep there for a minute,” the jazz pianist and member of the popular trio the Bad Plus said, tongue very much in cheek during a Skype chat from the road in Vitoria, Spain. “I think it was that phrase you used, 'Jazzified Rite Of Spring?' It was like entering a deep sleep.”
In my own defense, the phrase "punked up" was also cited in the inquiry about how Iverson sees On Sacred Ground, The Bad Plus' new multimedia adaptation of composer Igor Stravinsky's landmark ballet Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite Of Spring), which the group performs tonight at a free show at the Damrosch Park Bandshell at Lincoln Center.
Given the astonishment that has accompanied the jazz-based ensemble's sometimes jagged reworkings of rock songs by bands such as Nirvana and Rush, the question of intent and/or outcome is a natural one. Like most musicheads, the Bad Plus are very familiar with the tales of near rioting at the 1913 Paris premiere of Le Sacre du Printemps; a ground zero for the concept of an “avant-garde,” it has become the template for an iconoclastic relationship between artists and listeners that a great many musicians have aspired to re-inhabit and re-create ever since, whether it be the saxophonist Ornette Coleman upending bebop, Bob Dylan pissing off his folk fanbase by going electric, or the Ramones or Sex Pistols stripping rock back to its essentials.
Since all three members of the Bad Plus are seasoned improvisers (Reid Anderson plays bass; David King, drums), it's certainly worth wondering if their interpretation of a work which posits ritual sacrifice as a foundation for rebirth actually trades any of Stravinsky's maverick invention for their own. The new title would seem to offer a clue.
“It's a classical piece," Iverson said. "So we knew we were in foreign waters. We named it that as an indication that it's an appropriation of something that some people think of as hallowed.”
The new piece, which combines the trio's music with projections by visual artists Cristina Guadalupe and Noah Hutton featuring modern dancer Julie Warden, finally touches down in Damrosch Park tonight after nearly 20 performances around the country. Co-commissioned by Duke Performances in North Carolina and Lincoln Center, it premiered to raves at Duke University last fall.
Thing is, Iverson, 39, is really no stranger to either classical music or dance.
“He has a natural curiosity about contemporary classical music especially,” says Aaron Greenwald, director of Duke Performances. That probably explains how, in the midst of a jazz-centered career that saw the young Wisconsin native collaborating with vets like tenor saxist Dewey Redman and drummer Billy Hart (whose estimable current ECM album All Our Reasons features the pianist prominently), Iverson managed to get tapped by choreographer Mark Morris to be his dance company's music director.
“One of the ways I survived in New York early on was playing for dance classes," Iverson said. "In that respect I'm a pretty good sight-reader.” He held the post with Morris—which found him trafficking in as much baroque music as he did in modernism—for some six years, forming the Bad Plus as he made his exit.
It's possible that the Bad Plus may be treating Stravinsky with more reverence than anything they've interpreted thus far in their career, visuals notwithstanding.
“We're using the arrangement for two pianos that Stravinsky wrote before Le Sacre premiered,” Iverson explained. “The four-handed score is what dance companies have always used to set the work, and at this point it has been recorded professionally several times, in addition to the many orchestral performances, like the not-so-great one that most people know in Disney's Fantasia. The story is that Stravinsky had taken the original score over to [composer Claude] Debussy's house and they ran through it together on piano.
"I think Reid [Anderson] had a rather large influence on what I play,” Iverson continued, “in that he chose things in the score that made sense for his instrument, like the French horn, bassoons, and string parts. The way it works is that if he was covering something, I didn't really have to. I feel like Dave [King's] drum part is a little miracle of appropriation. He stirred in things from everywhere. ”
Iverson admitted that The Rite Of Spring's rhythms remain among Stravinsky's most groundbreaking achievements.
“We in the Bad Plus are used to odd-metered stuff, but I'm still amazed by how hard it was to learn and play,” said the pianist. “You can understand why someone like [John Coltrane drummer] Elvin Jones dug the piece so much. He mentioned it in interviews. I think there's a straight line that can be drawn from Stravinsky's meters to prog-rock stuff like Yes, Genesis, and King Crimson. In Stravinsky's notebooks he was conscious of numbering his rhythms so that they'd happen in an asymmetrical way before they repeated and so forth.” Iverson paused.
“I dunno, as a result, there'd really be no reason to try to jazzify the work. Wouldn't that be kinda gilding the lily, so to speak? I mean, it kicked the orchestra's asses then, and kicks ours now.”
The Bad Plus perform 'On Sacred Ground' tonight at a free show at the Damrosch Park Bandshell at Lincoln Center. Photo above left by Cameron Wittig.
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