Keeping Time

Twenty-five-and-a-half hours with The Bad Plus
June 1, 2011
 
Now hear this: The Bad Plus—Iverson, Anderson, and King, from left—work through a graduate-student composition.

Now hear this: The Bad Plus—Iverson, Anderson, and King, from left—work through a graduate-student composition.
Les Todd

Eleven-thirty in the morning. Reid Anderson and Ethan Iverson are standing by the locked doors to Bone Hall in the Mary Duke Biddle Music Building, and they look tired. It’s late January. A few days earlier, they’d played a show in Israel. This morning, they left their Brooklyn apartments and flew to Durham.

Anderson, a bassist and composer, and Iverson, a pianist and composer, are two-thirds of the contemporary jazz trio The Bad Plus. (Dave King, the drummer, will arrive in the early afternoon from Minneapolis.) Duke Performances, the university’s performing-arts operation, has commissioned the band to make an arrangement of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, which they are preparing to perform for the first time in late March at Reynolds Industries Theater. The commission also includes a residency by the band on campus, which is broken into three installments—fall, winter, and spring. The current trip, the winter one, is the second time the band has been at Duke.

Finally, someone arrives with the key, and the small group that’s gathered moves into the room.

During the fall visit, the band had met with four graduate students in the music department—Alex Kotch A.M. ’09, Jamie Keesecker, Dan Ruccia A.M. ’08, and Kenneth Stewart—and had begun the process of working with them on their individual compositions. This morning’s session is a continuation of what happened in the fall, which, by the way things start out, does not sound like it was entirely smooth sailing. Iverson makes a reference to “fallout” from the earlier meeting. There are some tense moments to begin with—creative collaborations tend to produce those—but when the students begin presenting the changes they’ve made to their work, the conversation flows more freely, if technically, as music and language seem to coexist in less-than-perfect harmony. Some snippets:

“This time the notation feels like the piece….” “It’s fast, and it’s notey—I have to hear you guys play it….” “It’s like putting the Legos together….” “It’s not something we can talk about….”

Finally, Iverson interjects, “I think a lot of the best music in the twentieth century has been made by people showing other people how it goes at the piano.”

And that is what they do as the session winds down. Ruccia plays Iverson part of his piece on the piano, then Iverson plays it back to him as people are packing up their things and getting ready for the next event.

Three o’clock. The band, now complete with King, is on stage at Baldwin Auditorium. There are snacks up there, too—tortilla chips and salsa, hummus, and bottled water. Unlike the earlier “note session,” this part of the residency, the “listening session,” is open to the public. A small crowd is assembled, but the vast emptiness of the auditorium is notable, and noted. King suggests that the crowd set up chairs on the stage with them, and soon, everybody but Alex Kotch, one of the student composers, is sitting at eye level with the band. Kotch is below in the first row. The band is playing his piece.

Kotch and King discuss changing the beat. They play one time through, and it’s too fast. “That’s getting more into ‘Riverdance’ territory,” King jokes. They play slower, and after a few runs, Kotch is settling into the give and take with the band. “I’m not super married to the C-minor bar,” he says at one point. And they play the piece again. And again. After nearly forty-five minutes of rejiggering, it’s time to move on to the next student.

Duly noted: Iverson, above, articulates creative tensions; King gets percussive.

Duly noted: Iverson, left, articulates creative tensions; King gets percussive.
Les Todd

Seven-thirty, and a cold rain is falling. The bandmates have spent a grueling three-and-a-half hours working through the student compositions and collaborating with the composers, and they are clearly in the mood to loosen up. They are sitting around a table on the small stage of the Duke Coffeehouse on East Campus. They've got a bottle of wine open and are sipping from small plastic cups. This is the listening party, a common element in Duke Performances' artist residencies.

Dan Mueller, a musicology graduate student who is moderating the session, uses his iPod (which is hooked into the venue's speaker system) to play an interpretation of Chopin by jazz icons Lee Konitz and Gil Evans. When it stops, Iverson is the first to chime in: “I'm sorry, but that's just not good music.” “Yeah, let's play some bluesy licks over Chopin,” King adds, sarcastically.

It's a subject that the band necessarily cares about—they have a scant two months to figure out how they will interpret one of the best-known and most revered pieces of twentieth-century classic music. But it won't be their first time in the arena: They “covered” Stravinsky's “Variations d'Apollon” on their 2008 album For All I Care (which also included covers of grunge-rock band Nirvana's “Lithium” and Pink Floyd's “Comfortably Numb”).

“It's not an easy marriage” between jazz and classical, Anderson says. And while the band was dismissive of Konitz's and Evans' attempts, they do admire some successful meldings of the two: Don Lambert, John Lewis, and Bud Powell have all made it work. So has Konitz. Toward the end of the hour-and-a-half long session, Iverson says that in the 1940s, Konitz and tenor saxophonist Warne Marsh practiced Bach inventions together. The resulting recordings, he says, “had this sort of unbelievable purity.”

Eleven in the morning the next day. The band is slow to assemble in the lobby of Durham’s Hilton hotel. They went to a friend’s house for dinner after the listening party the night before, and they are on their way to the John Hope Franklin Center, where they’ll participate in a panel discussion moderated by Scott Lindroth, vice provost for the arts. Aaron Greenwald, director of Duke Performances, waits in the lobby to drive them to campus. But before they get there, they reflect on what lies ahead as they put the finishing touches on their Rite of Spring interpretation, titled “On Sacred Ground,” which has been in the works for nearly a year.

“We’re getting to know this music intimately—there are great ideas in this piece that blow the doors wide open for the twentieth century,” Anderson says. King worries about his part, but concludes that he’s glad the band is doing it. “I think it’s going to be personal. We’re getting to the fun part: the score, the parts for the instruments.”

At the Franklin Center an hour later, Duke faculty members, students, and members of the Durham community sit in a meeting room, many eating complimentary Indian food for lunch.

During the panel discussion, Lindroth and the band talk about the use of The Rite of Spring in Fantasia (it’s during the creation scene), the 1913 premiere performance in Paris that caused a riot (though the composition was later well-received), watching videos of the Joffrey Ballet’s recreation of the original accompanying dance choreography by Nijinsky on YouTube (yes, you too can watch), and the difficulties of clearing the rights for the piece with the Stravinsky estate (apparently Stravinsky’s grandson and estate executor, John Stravinsky, drives a hard bargain).

King talks about the challenges of arranging a piece originally meant for about a hundred instruments into one meant for three. He laughs. The panelists stand up and shake hands.

And just like that, time is up.


Aaron Kirschenfeld