Over the past decade, The Bad Plus has become renowned for radical deconstructions of other musical styles, playing avant-jazz covers of highly unlikely tunes - Blondie's "Heart of Glass," Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and Tears For Fears' "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" among them.
But the trio's latest undertaking is the most audacious yet, a reimagining of "The Rite of Spring," the 1913 composition by Igor Stravinsky. The world premiere is Saturday night in Durham.
"It's definitely jumping into the deep end of the pool in terms of projects like this," said Reid Anderson, bassist in The Bad Plus. "It's about 40 minutes of music, so there's a lot of notes. A lot of notes."
Duke Performances commissioned the project, which began when director Aaron Greenwald contacted the trio and said Anderson and band mates Ethan Iverson and David King could do anything they wanted. They brainstormed, and the group's booking agent suggested "The Rite of Spring."
Initially, band members dismissed the idea. But they kept coming back to it, before finally deciding that it was the ultimate challenge.
"Try as we might to think of another that would be easier for us," Anderson said, "it ended up that we had to agree that this was the sexiest idea."
Born as a ballet
It's quite out of the ordinary for The Bad Plus to take someone else's suggestion when it comes to repertoire. People tell the three what to cover so often that they are fairly nonchalant about it.
"We've covered everything from Aphex Twin to 'Chariots of Fire,' so we're pretty open to anything," Anderson said. "It would be pretty hard to shock us at this point. I mean, it's nice that people have suggestions, but honestly, we don't listen to them. It has to generate from an organic process within the group, where someone said, 'Hey, this could work.' We all kind of have to agree that's worth putting the effort into."
"The Rite of Spring" goes back nearly a century, born as the score to a ballet. It's now one of the most iconic pieces in the classical canon, especially after Walt Disney used it to score a sequence depicting Earth through the ages in his 1940 animated classic "Fantasia." But "The Rite of Spring" was controversial and even caused a riot when it was first performed in Paris in 1913, because its rhythms and structure represented such an extreme and unexpected departure from classical ballet.
Playing in New York
After premiering at Duke this weekend, The Bad Plus will reprise "The Rite of Spring" in 2012 at Lincoln Center in New York. The three hope to take it elsewhere, too, if only because of how much work has gone into it over the past year - including artist-in-residence stints at Duke in October and January. The group will also discuss and play samples from the piece at 7 p.m. Thursday at Duke's Reynolds Theater.
"The number of hours put into this is very large and getting larger," Anderson said, sounding a touch weary. "The hardest part is facing the score, this music, and trying to figure out how do we take it apart and put it back together for the three of us. How do we honor the essential element of this large-scale piece while bringing it into a smaller-scale trio format it was never meant to be played in? How do we still convey what it needs to be?
"That first decision-making process requires a lot of energy and time," he added. "The thing is, you can't imagine it but you have to. Fortunately, it's a great piece of music. That's the real payoff for us in the end, all the hours and effort taking us deeper into something we can learn a lot from."