When Ethan Iverson talks about “the daily practice,” he is not referring to running scales at the keyboard or hashing out difficult scores to the ticking of a metronome. He uses the term much like a doctor or lawyer, to specify the exercise of a profession — or perhaps even to specify the perpetuation of a lifestyle. The pianist is best known as one of the three founding members of The Bad Plus (along with bassist Reid Anderson and drummer David King), an avant-garde jazz trio that first turned heads when it landed a major-label deal in the early 2000s. The group continues generating media interest from sources as disparate as Rolling Stone and JazzTimes, largely because of its nontraditional approach to covers and its heavy-hitting, complex originals. The Bad Plus has its New Mexico debut at Albuquerque’s Outpost Performance Space, with sets on Thursday and Friday, May 1 and 2.
Despite the buzz surrounding the group’s recordings of songs like Radiohead’s “Karma Police” and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” The Bad Plus did not invent the concept of reinterpreting popular music. The very act of cultural merging and scavenging is fundamental to jazz, beginning with the appropriation of show tunes for their harmonic structures and the repurposing of their forms to serve as blueprints for improvisation. An example is Rodgers and Hart’s “My Funny Valentine,” composed for the 1937 musical Babes in Arms and since recorded by countless jazz luminaries, from Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis all the way up to The Bad Plus.
But “My Funny Valentine” is a rare standard for a band famous for tackling more contemporary material like Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man,” and the hype generated by such selections has not been universally positive. While some critics heralded the young Midwestern trio as the next saviors of contemporary jazz (a particularly snarky Esquire review of 2003’s These Are the Vistas asked, “Can one album single-handedly make jazz relevant again?”), others complained that the group was too loud and didn’t swing. The tiebreaker concerning that last charge would seem to come from the adoption of the individual trio members into more traditional but equally prominent small improv groups. Iverson, for example, plays regularly with legendary jazz drummers Billy Hart and Tootie Heath. It seems safe to assume that these two innovators — definers of the very concept of swing — would not be working with the pianist if he couldn’t keep up.
Iverson discussed versatility with Pasatiempo during a short break that followed several tour dates in Europe and preceded a six-night run at the Jazz Standard in Manhattan. “I know Keith Jarrett said that if he is practicing classical music, he can’t play jazz, and if he’s playing jazz, he can’t think about classical music. He has these real divisions that he sets up in his private life in the studio. That I don’t understand. For me it all just sort of goes next to each other. Whether it’s The Bad Plus, or classical music, The Rite of Spring, or with Tootie Heath, the essential feeling, the daily practice, remains similar to me.”
The Rite of Spring is one of The Bad Plus’ most recent and ambitious undertakings. Iverson explained that the concept originated from the group’s residency at Duke University in 2010. The band first discussed ideas for a jazz commission with Aaron Greenwald, head of the Duke Performances program, and “kicked around a lot of ideas. A lot of bad ideas. Then, when The Rite of Spring came up, it was sort of like, oh, yeah, that’s clearly what we’ve got to do. It already sounds like us anyway.” The ballet shocked early audiences with its narrative concept, Nijinsky’s modernist choreography, and Stravinsky’s musical accompaniment — the score employs rhythm and harmony to such daring, even jarring, effect that the 1913 Paris premiere devolved into chaos. Retroactive observers commonly agree that the work was years ahead of its time. “The Rite,” music critic Alex Ross writes in his 2007 book The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, “prophesied a new type of popular art — lowdown yet sophisticated, smartly savage, style and muscle intertwined.”
In its own live and recorded interpretations of The Rite of Spring, The Bad Plus sticks surprisingly close to the actual score, even though the trio is filling in for an entire orchestra. Iverson originally based his part on a four-hands piano version written by Stravinsky and said that he and the other musicians focused on ways to whittle down the orchestral score to its most salient elements. “The main thing is you’ve got to sort of figure out what the argument of each movement is. You’re going to leave a lot out, but a lot of it is just orchestral color and very fast counterpoint. I’m actually impressed, listening back to it, how much of the piece is there in our performance.”
The group stays its impulse to improvise and thus minimizes any variations in each individual part from performance to performance. “You can move things around a little, but it’s more about placement than changing notes.” King might be expected to have a little more leeway on drums, but “he is really playing a part too. I’m not saying he’s not improvising at all; it’s more like he has options at certain places. The music is very tight.” Though the recorded version of the work just came out in March, The Bad Plus has been performing The Rite of Spring since 2011, and Iverson did not expect it to be part of the program at The Outpost. He said that the band is already pushing ahead to the next project — one that does not include covers of Sabbath, Stravinsky, or anybody in between — because original composition remains an integral part of the daily practice for the three bandmates. “We actually have another record already recorded called Inevitable Western, an album of all-original music, coming out in the fall. It’s sort of a companion piece to The Rite of Spring. With three composers in the band, there’s always new music. We’re all always writing.” ◀
The Bad Plus plays at the Outpost Performance Space (210 Yale Blvd. S.E., Albuquerque) at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday and Friday, May 1 and 2. Tickets, $25, $20 for students, are available from www.outpostspace.org. Call 505-268-0444.