STRAVINSKY(arr. The Bad Plus) Le sacre du printemps • Ethan Iverson (pn); Reid Anderson (db, electronics); David King (dr) • SONY 88843 01405-2 (39:24)
Oh, that ominous headnote. What can it mean? Someone dares to trifle with Stravinsky? By way of partial explanation, The Bad Plus is a prominent and successful jazz trio which over the years has ventured well outside of the jazz mainstream for its repertoire and multi-stylistic approach. Pianist EthanRead more Iverson’s own interests spread out across a remarkably wide spectrum—check out his blog, “Do The Math,” where he is as likely to write with insight about Ralph Shapey as Horace Silver. So it’s not surprising that Stravinsky eventually came up on his radar screen. Moreover, The Rite of Spring has enticed several decades’ worth of jazz musicians to adapt it for their own purposes. Famed alto saxophonist Paul Desmond used to quote it in his solos regularly, and composed a piece, Sacre Blues, around its opening phrase. Ornette Coleman (Sleep Talk) and Carla Bley (And Now the Queen) likewise paraphrased the famous bassoon melody, each in his or her own manner, and Alice Coltrane recorded a version of “Spring Rounds” which starts off conventionally and explodes into orchestral flux. Former big band trombonist and studio arranger Don Sebesky made two adaptations, one that compressed several of its themes into a nine-minute fantasy for flutist Hubert Laws (Rite Of Spring), and the other an incongruous juxtaposition of chunks of Stravinsky’s orchestration and straightahead jazz soloists (Three Works For Jazz Soloists & Symphony Orchestra). Higher on the originality scale, the conducted improvising ensemble Burnt Sugar borrowed motives for its loosely designed The Rites, and a Montreal ensemble called Quartetski has realized a witty, captivating, nearly complete version, with inserted improvisational passages, for the unlikely instrumentation of viola da gamba, violin, electric guitar, bass clarinet/soprano saxophone, and drums (Quartetski Does Stravinsky). And there have been others.
But the arrangement by The Bad Plus does not contain any improvisation, outside of David King’s drumming, which variously plays off of the original rhythmic accents, ornaments the beat, punctuates bits of melody, and adds jazz inflections (especially those crashing cymbals) which sometimes confuse the point of view. Apart from the opening moments, where Reid Anderson’s electronics simulate a heartbeat (of The Chosen One?), create a hazy ambience and phantom harmonies, and affect the tone of the piano—and the work’s conclusion, to which they append a questionable rhythmic coda—they play the music as written, as best they can with just piano and bass. Now, many two-piano teams have rejected Stravinsky’s own four-hand reduction in favor of their own solutions, and several pianists have devised their own solo piano versions (my preference is for that of Sam Raphling, impressively played by Dickran Atamian, originally on RCA but currently available on Delos). Suffice to say under Iverson’s hands (and those of Anderson) enough of the music is there to recognize the composer’s storyline. But there is a twist on Stravinsky’s characteristic rhythmic impetus. In a 2013 interview with Richard Scheinin of the San Jose Mercury News, Iverson commented that in this case he was “looking for a kind of elegant folkloric passion, instead of the tighter classical music passion.” In so doing, the pianist frequently does not follow a strict phrasing, nor a forced jazz swing, but adopts a relaxed approach that pulls back rather than pounds, and allows the repeated motifs to breathe. This is a more lyrical than propulsive perspective, and so the music proceeds in an intense, but not relentless, fashion.
It should be obvious that neither this nor any of the other piano reductions are to be thought of as an equivalent of the full orchestral score. But they can provide, as this one does, a different, albeit not always comfortable, point of view that enhances new details or offers an unusual take on an overly familiar masterpiece. Purists, beware. As for the curious and adventurous, crank up the volume!