Design By Humans
Published On: Thu, Apr 10th, 2014

The Bad Plus: The Rite Of Spring

rite of springThe Bad Plus
The Rite Of Spring
(Sony Masterworks)

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Infamously, when The Rite of Spring premiered in 1913, it caused a riot. It wasn’t just Igor Stravinsky’s score, but Nijinsky’s choreography, Roerich’s sets and costumes–not to mention Diaghilev’s vision (and money)–all came together to create a truly shocking experience, one that is hard to imagine ever happening again. Over the past 101 years, however, the piece has become something much less rebellious or divisive. Stravinsky’s score, while just as brilliant, has become  accepted as part of the orchestral music cannon, performed and studied just as often as the Beethoven Symphonies or the Mozart Piano Concerti.

Jazz, too, has lost a lot of its cultural cachet. It’s institutionalized, taught alongside classical music in high schools across the country. Like The Rite, jazz is no longer rebellious or avant-garde. And even the idea of re-imagining Stravinsky’s famous piece has become something of a cliche. You can find a big band version, a prog rock version, a heavy metal version, among others. So what, then, is really at stake for a group like The Bad Plus in tackling this piece?

The trio made a name for themselves with clever covers of popular rock songs in their signature lo-fi acid-jazz style. More recently, though, they’ve begun to dip into the 20th century concert music repertoire with their 2008 album, For All I Care, which included takes on pieces by Ligetti, Babbitt, and Stravinsky. So in that sense, The Bad Plus going to The Rite of Spring seems inevitable. But with the cultural baggage and prestige a piece like The Rite brings along, the most they can really do is perform it competently. There are few things a group can do to The Rite that hasn’t already been done or which would shine a new light on the work and add a new excitement to it.

But competent they certainly pull off. For their ninth studio album, the trio manages to translate Stravinsky’s lush orchestral score, filled with vibrant instrumental colors, to their limited resources rather convincingly. They highlight the intricate primal rhythms without loosing the melodic layering and dense harmonies. Predictably there is a noticeable lack of power in sections like “The Augurs of Spring.” With only three instruments, The Bad Plus just can’t make enough noise.

Which is interesting when you look at their first movement. This introduction track utilizes live samples and electronic processing to bring out the haunting colors of the original as well as simply adding more layers and parts. But this technique mysteriously disappears for the rest of the album. If these samples and sound manipulations ran throughout the work, The Bad Plus’s Rite would be more interesting and successful.

We will never be able to experience The Rite like those who saw it in Paris a century ago, but it continues to be one of the most wonderfully composed scores of all time. While The Bad Plus add little to the piece with their interpretation, they certainly can’t take anything away from it either, and their album offers at least an interesting and impressive variation on the work to check out.

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The Bad Plus: The Rite Of Spring