The Bad Plus Tackle Stravinsky's 'Spring'



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The latest project from The Bad Plus shifts the jazz trio's focus from rock classics to a classical masterpiece. (Courtesy of Big Hassle)
The latest project from The Bad Plus shifts the jazz trio's focus from rock classics to a classical masterpiece. (Courtesy of Big Hassle)

You probably know Igor Stravinsky's controversial ballet The Rite of Spring from its appearance in the Disney film Fantasia, where it served as the score for a dramatic sequence depicting the dawn of the universe. Later this week, the piece will be showcased anew – by group of musicians with a reputation for reinvention.

The Bad Plus is a jazz trio with a rock-heavy repertoire. Over seven albums, the band has re-arranged Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" and Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," as well as classics by Blondie and David Bowie. Several years ago, they dipped a toe into the classical pool with an interpretation of Stravinsky's "Apollo."

As drummer Dave King tells Weekend Edition Sunday host Liane Hansen, he and his bandmates dared themselves to take the experiment further: "We thought, well, let's just go all the way and try and tackle the monster."

That monster is The Rite of Spring in its entirety. Working on a commission from Duke University and Lincoln Center, the band has been rehearsing their own version of the ballet for the past eight months, which they will perform at Duke on Saturday, March 26. It's a difficult piece, full of odd time signatures — but according to pianist Ethan Iverson, that's not the only thing that has made the process monstrous.

"What we're trying to do, essentially, is turn the piece into something of our own," Iverson says. "The size of the work is what's so different this time — after doing a three-or-four-minute excerpt from a ballet, now we're doing a gigantic piece of music. The concept is kind of like learning 28 little pieces of music that are all really different and don't repeat!"

To ease those difficulties, the band chose a curious plan of attack in crafting their arrangement: They started at the finale and worked backward. "We sort of determined that the last movement was the hardest one," says bassist Reid Anderson. "I think it's good psychologically to kind of get that out of the way."

Adapting the rest of the ballet was an equally demanding process. Dave King says the band's vision and Stravinsky's will have to meet in the middle; the difficulty is knowing just where that ought to happen.

"We've had major discussions about, where is The Bad Plus in this thing?" says King. "We've never approached any of our reworkings with irony. Sometimes people have maybe thought that about us, but we're actually quite earnest about everything we're trying to take apart."

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In higher education, there are two kinds of March madness - the NCAA basketball tournaments and the anxiety that infects high school seniors as they wait, like, forever from the acceptance letters from their chosen colleges and universities.

Raynell Cooper is a senior at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Maryland. He's nervously waiting, too, but he has a unique cause for his anxiety. He had to leave a major detail out of his college applications. Raynell is with me in the studio. Raynell, it's nice to meet you but what did you have to leave out of your application?

RAYNELL COOPER: I had to leave out that I'm the winner of the 2011 Jeopardy Teen Tournament.

HANSEN: Why? Why couldn't you include that?

COOPER: We're sworn to not release our results and that college application process came right before the airing. So, I couldn't do anything about it.

HANSEN: Couldn't you even, like, negotiate with Alex? I mean, the tournament is taped in December and it doesn't air until March. I mean, couldn't you have told anybody that those applications were due before the time you could actually let your secret out of the bag?

COOPER: Yeah. I would have loved to, but I'm just hoping that, you know, there's some Jeopardy fans at my colleges and they're listening to this or saw the show. That'd be fantastic.

HANSEN: You had to keep this secret for three months. What was that like?

COOPER: It was an experience. I had a lot of friends asking me, just trying to, you know, get it out of me. But I told no one. Not a soul.

HANSEN: Yeah. Well, your top choice for college is George Washington University. Where else did you apply and have you heard from any of the other schools?

COOPER: I applied to Clark University in Western Massachusetts. I got in there. I got into the University of Vermont and University of Maryland Baltimore County and I've yet to hear back from the University of Oregon.

HANSEN: And George Washington University.

COOPER: And George Washington, of course.

HANSEN: How do you train for the teen tournament?

COOPER: It's a lot of studying. The teen tournament has a lot of - it does have, you know, your typical literature, art, things like that, but it also has a lot of pop culture, young adult literature, video games, things like that. And I'm on my school's academic team so I know a bit of the, you know, literature, science, things like that. So, I did a lot of studying of young adult literature. My mom kind of drilled me on books that are aimed at teens because that's what the teen tournament likes to ask a lot about.

HANSEN: Oh, about literature?


HANSEN: How much did you win?

COOPER: Seventy-five thousand dollars.

HANSEN: Ooh, ooh. What are you going to do with prize money?

COOPER: Well, a lot of it's probably going to go to college but hopefully to a new car. I've yet to decide on what make and model, but I'll have to look into that. And then hopefully a trip up to Alaska. I've always wanted to see all the glaciers and stuff like that.

HANSEN: Raynell Cooper is the Jeopardy Teen Tournament champion and a student at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Maryland. Raynell, thanks a lot for coming in.

COOPER: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.