The Bad Plus Performs Stravinsky
Posted 11/7/2013

The University of Chicago launched its new jazz series on Oct. 25 with a high-profile concert by the New York-based trio The Bad Plus performing an adaptation of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet score The Rite of Spring.

The sold-out event took place on the university campus in the 474-seat performance hall of the new Logan Center for the Arts, a state-of-the-art building that opened in 2012 and also houses classrooms and practice, performance and exhibition spaces.

“It’s stressful playing The Rite of Spring,” bassist Reid Anderson reflected during a pause in the second set, which focused on the band’s original material. “There are more wrong-note possibilities.” The Bad Plus first performed its adaptation, titled “On Sacred Ground: Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring,” at Duke University in 2011.

Stravinsky’s ballet quite famously caused a riot when it premiered in Paris on May 29, 1913. The Bad Plus may not have incited a riot, but it wasn’t for lack of inspired musicianship.

The group’s musical performance was accompanied by video segments by filmmakers Cristina Guadalupe and Noah Hutton. These videos, projected onto a screen behind the musicians, were a parallel of sorts to the ballet’s original choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky, which was performed in 1913 by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes.

The visual accompaniment opened with a blurry image of the sun, which seemed to signify dawn or early morning. A second projection screen in front of the stage slowly lifted to reveal The Bad Plus members onstage—Anderson, pianist Ethan Iverson and drummer Dave King. As the visuals shifted to the screen behind the musicians, Iverson began the score’s familiar opening theme amid electronic burbling.

Soon, the musicians left that dream-like introduction behind and were blasting full-bore ahead, pounding out Stravinsky’s famous dissonant chord, an E-major triad over E-flat seventh. The abstract video images here suggested frenzied movement. Guadalupe and Hutton used documentary footage of the protests in Egypt’s “Tahir” Square as part of their source material.

During the score’s first part, “Adoration of the Earth,” the musicians locked into one of the tightest segments of the evening, working Stravinsky’s colossal composition for 50-plus instruments into a deep groove for just three pieces.

Before “Adoration” came to a close, the stage lights dimmed to darkness for a dramatic effect, before pools of light burst forth from floodlights below the projection screen. In this chaotic musical section, King plowed a heavy rock rhythm, emphasizing his hi-hat. Anderson’s own spidery bass lines coiled expertly around Stravinsky’s skittish melodic lines.

The score’s second part, “The Sacrifice,” was accompanied by video footage of Julie Worden, a Mark Morris dancer who also appeared in The Bad Plus’ video for “Semi-Simple Variation” in 2009. The black-and-white video of Worden evoked early ’60s cinema, a noticeable shift from the impressionism of the first part’s video pieces.

There were moments here where the band could have chosen to stretch out musically. Instead, they stayed locked into Stravinsky’s score and built “On Sacred Ground” to its stunning conclusion, the sensational “Sacrificial Dance,” in which Worden portrayed a young girl dancing herself to death in a vernal offering.

After a brief intermission, The Bad Plus came back to the stage for a second set, playing songs off their 2012 album, Made Possible (eOne Music), including King’s “Wolf Out” and “I Want To Feel Good Pt 2” and Anderson’s “Seven Minute Mind.”

If “On Sacred Ground” was a tense endeavor for the band, the trio’s original compositions showed its lighter side: progressive jazz-rock that is both erudite and mischievously fun.

Following the set of original material, Anderson thanked the filmmakers for their contribution to “On Sacred Ground.” Guadalupe joined the band onstage from her perch at the soundboard for a final curtain call, underscoring the importance of the visual components of the performance. (The band plans to release a recording of the Stravinsky piece in 2014.)

The University of Chicago Presents’ “Jazz at the Logan” series will continue with four performances, including clarinetist Anat Cohen (Nov. 24), saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa (Dec. 6), trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire (March 7) and pianists Dick Hyman and Bill Charlap (May 30).

All the concerts will take place at the Logan Center for the Arts, 915 East 60th St. Tickets for the concerts in the “Jazz at the Logan” series are $35, with special $5 tickets available for students. More information is at chicagopresents.uchicago.edu.

Davis Inman


The Bad Plus (Photo: Cameron Wittig)

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