The Bad Plus wanted to bail on Duke Performances.
In 2010, the borderless jazz trio, famous for interpreting Black Sabbath and Nirvana while crafting its own intricate tunes, had accepted a commission to reinvent Igor Stravinsky's music for The Rite of Spring. They would present the world premiere at Duke in early 2011, just less than a century after the ballet premiered to infamous outrage in Paris. It was an audacious task, to be sure, one that required a complete deconstruction and reconstruction of a complex masterwork of the modern classical canon.
But when the band—bassist Reid Anderson, pianist Ethan Iverson and drummer Dave King—realized just what they'd agreed to, they asked Duke Performances director Aaron Greenwald if they might do something a little less involved. They wanted a pass. But the contracts were signed. The program was at the printer. And the piece was the season anchor.
"They called and said, 'What if we did this or did that instead?' But essentially, there is no idea that was going to be more attractive to me than The Rite of Spring," Greenwald remembers. "Unless you have a compelling reason that this is impossible, or unless you're going to remake Cahoots, this is probably a thing we ought to stick with."
Three years later, the group agrees with Greenwald: They've taken their Rite of Spring rework to several countries, performing it in Germany as recently as September. In March, they issued it as an album (their first of two this year) on Sony Masterworks. And this week, they'll unveil a new commission from Duke Performances—a reinvention of Science Fiction, the 1971 Ornette Coleman LP that was one of the most pivotal and powerful moments of the jazz pioneer's career.
For Iverson, the relationship with Duke became a new boon for The Bad Plus: "The Rite of Spring got off to a slow start," he says, "but it ended up being a real step for the band."
When The Bad Plus finished The Rite of Spring, says Iverson, the group realized that these intensive, months-long projects actually offered the chance to unlock the deepest compositional secrets of a landmark. It even reinvented the way they thought of Stravinsky.
"I'm a big Stravinsky fan, but that was actually not my favorite Stravinsky work, despite its fame—Les Noces, Orpheus, Oedipus Rex, the list goes on and on," Iverson says. "But it was good to get in there and realize it lived up to the hype. Everyone knows it's influential, but once you learn it, you realize just how influential it is. All this stuff that we all use all the time, Stravinsky more or less came up with it."
Science Fiction is a different organism to dissect. Instead of a concert piece regularly played by orchestras, it's an eight-track, 37-minute intense improvisation. Coleman and a stunning set of 10 other musicians flip between the formless and the calculated, the cacophonous and the melodious, the driving and the drifting. For a band whose individual and collective tastes are so broad, those diverse moves represent a stylistic nexus for The Bad Plus.
"It sounds like no other record," Anderson says. He remembers hearing the album for the first time at Iverson's house as a teenager. "It's like music from outer space."
In the past, The Bad Plus has covered and even recorded bits of Science Fiction. Noting how often the members cited it as a unifying touchstone, Greenwald approached them with the idea of a full-length cover. Why not explore part of their own foundation, on stage and in public?
"With The Rite of Spring, we were dealing with this very specific, famous and technical text that we thought we had to remain true to. It was a massive undertaking, orchestrating all of that information," Anderson says. "But this is almost folk music, and it's free jazz. It's about a certain kind of improvisation that we've all thought about most of our musical lives, from the point we were turned onto it. It's more inherent to who we are and what we do."
During the '70s sessions for Science Fiction, nothing was verboten. There were beautiful ballads, which Anderson will sing live, and tumultuous ruptures built around spoken-word poetry. The personality of each player—Charlie Haden's bulbous bass lines, Billy Higgins' kinetic drumming, Coleman's leaping and warping horn lines—serve as the music's core. The way that those distinct strands wrap into one thread makes the material so dense and so ripe for interpretation. It allows The Bad Plus to be The Bad Plus, even while exploring someone else's music.
For Science Fiction, The Bad Plus will fold three distinct horn players—the saxophonists Sam Newsome and Tim Berne and the trumpeter Ron Miles—into the band. With those players in tow, Iverson hopes to honor the original album's spirit by giving each musician the chance to put their stamp on the Coleman classic, not to function as mere surrogates for the dead or aged.
"On Science Fiction, those guys just play like themselves. The directive of this music is to be yourself," says Iverson. "If anyone's heard The Bad Plus, you'll know this has our sound to it."
The tone of Haden's bass on Science Fiction, for instance, is as outlandish and distinct as it ever was. His solos are bold and loud, as though the strings are being snapped a few feet away. At one point, he even plays his bass through a wah-wah pedal. Haden, who died earlier this year, was a hero of and mentor to The Bad Plus. But Anderson won't try to recreate that tone onstage. Instead, he'll use what he's learned from Haden to make the material his own.
"This record is a unique version of his unique sound. Replicating that would require a lot of factors," he says. "I'm just going to play with the best sound I can."
As with The Rite of Spring, the Science Fiction project won't end when The Bad Plus leaves Duke. They'll take the show to New York and, in March, on a European tour. That a commission outlives its premiere is important for The Bad Plus. Why devote so much time and attention to something with a limited shelf life?
"It was never our intention to build something that was a one-off. It was meant to be continually used and explored by the band," Iverson says. "If it goes well, who knows how long we'll be playing this."
For Greenwald, that continuation is an essential indication of what Duke Performances can accomplish with the proper resources. When the university pays an artist to create new work, the continued vitality of that work reflects back on the university, Greenwald says, which helps create a positive feedback cycle. More enthusiasm and more resources for new projects means, well, more new projects.
"It allows me to go back to this huge institution for which I work and say, 'Hey, you see that thing that we made? Well, it's playing all over the world,'" says Greenwald. "We should do more of those."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Something else."