Calculation and risk, bombast and glory, a complete shunning of expectations, and a penchant for the provocative, percussive and dramatic. It's hard to know if that description is meant to be applied to Igor Stravinsky's most heralded work or the collectively-operated trio known as The Bad Plus; it's hard to make that distinction because it rings true for both.
One hundred years separate the premiere of The Rite Of Spring, which caused a riot, and the recording of this album. In the interim, everything has changed and nothing has changed. Listeners still get lulled into and out of comfort zones, they confront music that's accepting of conventions and music that challenges them, and they use the weight of history and the pull of the present and future as counterbalancing forces in viewing art. Audiences nowadays won't likely be stirred into a frenzy over this music, but it remains potent and intoxicating, both in its original form and as presented here.
The idea of (re)interpreting this work came about several years before the album actually did. Duke Performances at Duke University and Lincoln Center Out of Doors commissioned The Bad Plus to create an "evening-length work." The group had already dealt with Stravinsky's music, having recorded "Variation d' Apollon" on For All I Care (Heads Up, 2009), so that success encouraged these three men to take a crack at the famed composer's most celebrated work for this commission. And that was just the beginning. The hard part, no doubt, came with score studies, practice, and distillation of ideas and themes. The Bad Plus had to break down this complex work and build it back up again, so as to realize the composer's intentions with only piano, bass, and drums.
The work premiered in March of 2011, and it saw more than a dozen performances the following year. By the time The Bad Plus recorded it, in June of 2013, the band was fully at peace and at war with the music; in short, this trio was dealing it out the way it should be dealt. Instead of creating a slapdash version or a "jazz" take on this work, The Bad Plus simply performs this not-so-simple piece. Sure, some liberties were taken and adjustments were made. That's a given just based on instrumentation alone. The end result, however, is largely loyal to what Stravinsky put on paper. The familiar graceful gestures from the "Introduction" are still there, the pounding accents of "The Augurs Of Spring" still make an impact, and the divinely grotesque nature of "Glorification Of The Chosen One" remains. But plenty of changes are also in the air; the pulsating heartbeat that ushers in the album and the steady groove that introduces "Dance Of The Earth" are but two of the many firm indications that this isn't a paint-by-numbers reduction of the score.
There's much to enjoy and admire here. Pummeling ordinances and schizophrenic gestures take hold, a basic back-and-forth connection between pianist Ethan Iverson