The Bad Plus: Stravinsky, Ligeti, and Babbitt … Videos, Photos

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(When Keane Southard contacted me about writing a paper on the “classical” tracks on For All I Care, I admit I was a little suspicious, for at the time it felt like what we did mostly flew over the heads of everybody. However, Keane was serious about the sounds and I ended up being flattered by his attention. The paper was submitted as “Modernist Classical Music on The Bad Plus’s For All I Care” for the Eastman course, Jazz and Classical Interactions.

More recently I enjoyed listening to the first movement of Keane’s Symphony No. 2 performed by American Composer’s Orchestra.

Most of my quotes below are from a phone call in early 2019 or the 2009 JazzTimes article, “Crossing Streams,” which was my formal attempt to explain TBP’s intentions to a jazz audience.

I have cleaned up a few of my quotes and added a few more pieces of historical content. The original paper, which includes more specific timings and details about events within each track. Keane’s comments are on the money and I remain proud of this music. — E.I. )

The Bad Plus released For All I Care in 2009.  In addition to being their first album with a collaborator, singer Wendy Lewis, the album was the group’s first foray into “classical music,” namely modernist works by the intrepid twentieth-century composers Igor Stravinsky, György Ligeti, and Milton Babbitt.

Within the band, pianist Ethan Iverson had studied European classical music privately and spent five years performing in the idiom with the Mark Morris Dance Group. Bassist Reid Anderson got a degree in performance from the renowned Curtis Institute of Music. Drummer David King worked with Minneapolis offshoots of Bang on a Can; it was also King’s idea to contextualize the Wendy Lewis pop covers with trio covers of modernist classical music on For All I Care.

In his teaching and in his writings online, Iverson argues jazz has always intersected with European classical music. “The older I get and the more research that I do, the more convinced I am that jazz cats always knew European classical music.  It’s actually the separation of the genres that can lead to problems: I like to joke with my students that there’s no such thing as jazz harmony. Anyway, as I say, Jelly Roll Morton knew European classical music, Sonny Clark knew it.  Whoever you think is especially soulful and pure in a jazz or blues idiom, the odds are that they spent at least some time in that world.”

There’s a certain tradition of “jazzing the classics,” but usually that means lightly swinging renditions of familiar melodies by composers like Chopin and Rachmaninoff. Modernist classical music presents unique challenges for those who want to play it in a jazz context.

In a 2009 article for JazzTimes about For All I Care, “Crossing Streams” (the title alludes to Gunther Schuller’s idea of Third Stream), Iverson describes two primary issues, “How do you fit real, grooving drumming into the context of harmonically advanced and rhythmically disjunct modern classical music?” and “How do you bridge the gulf harmonically between really modernist classical music and what a normal jazz musician can improvise?”  While calling Dave Douglas’s Stravinsky and Webern performances “excellent” and Richie Beirach’s Bartók recordings “successful,” he laments that these jazz versions are “almost never with grooving drums.  And without drums, would a jazz musician really want to play it every day?”  With the three classical works on For All I Care, The Bad Plus sought ways to overcome these two obstacles.  Iverson speculated that, “Maybe if we added real drums and were careful about how much we improvised we could make them work.”

Milton Babbitt, known as a modernist composer of uncompromisingly complex serial and electronic music, may seem to many to be one of the least likely classical composers to find one of his works placed in a jazz context, but Babbitt has more connections to jazz than most people realize.  (Few know that he also flirted with a career as a popular songwriter, but as Jerome Kuderna, who wrote a dissertation on Babbitt’s piano works, points out “the unpopular serious composer won out over the unserious popular one.”)  In 1957, he composed All Set, that, while created using complex and rigid systems for organizing both pitch and rhythm, was written for small jazz ensemble and, according to the composer, has, “jazz-like properties…the use of percussion, the Chicago jazz-like juxtapositions of solos and ensembles recalling certain characteristics of group improvisation.”  Additionally, nearly half a century later in 2002, he wrote A Gloss on ‘Round Midnight for piano based on Thelonious Monk’s jazz standard.

Iverson was introduced Babbitt’s relatively easy solo piano work Semi-Simple Variations by Patrick Zimmerli, a jazz saxophonist who loves modern classical music and with whom Iverson became friends with in the early 1990s.  In addition to playing the work in a recital at New York University where Iverson was a student, Zimmerli and Iverson played it as their “sign-off theme” whenever they played a duo gig together.  In 2008, Iverson decided to perform Babbitt’s piece for the release party for Alex Ross’s book The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. One day Dave King started playing drums with it while Iverson practiced at soundcheck.  “It actually sounded-surprisingly-not so bad.  Twelve-tone funk?…Reid Anderson joined us and we played it some more.  With bass added, it seemed totally legit.”  (Interestingly, Kuderna’s 1982 dissertation actually noted the piece’s rhythms as being “so jazzy and syncopated that one would never suspect that they were subjected to the same minute control as the pitch aggregates,” this more than twenty-five years before The Bad Plus’s discovery of them.)

When comparing Babbitt’s original work to the Bad Plus’s recordings, the most obvious difference is the addition of double bass and drum set.  I’ll look first at the longer of the two versions of the work included on the album, before considering the “alternate version” of the work.

The pianist plays the notes and rhythms of Babbitt’s work more or less exactly as written, while the bass doubles the melody during the theme and first variation before mostly doubling the lowest note of the left hand of the piano for the rest of the piece.  Being comprised solely of instruments of indefinite pitch, the drum set part is the only part of the trio not playing Babbitt’s written notes.  While the complex drum part is apparently improvised, as evidenced by a noticeably varied part in the “alternate version,” it is used to help find the groove in the piece and to clarify its formal structure.  At the beginning, King constantly changes and shifts his groove in order to accent and highlight different “hits” in the piece.  The energy gathers for the last two variations and King plays more like a backbeat.

A forty-second improvisation follows before the group repeats the final two variations (IV and V) and then the theme and first variation before finally ending.

Form of Milton Babbitt’s Semi-Simple Variations performed by The Bad Plus on For All I Care

Section Whole piece (Theme, Var I-V) Improvisation Repeat of Var. IV and V Repeat of Theme and Var. I
Duration 1’07” 40” 20” 20”

Iverson has mixed feelings about the improvisation.  In the JazzTimes article, he states that “on the longer version [of Semi-Simple Variations] we broke down and improvised a little bit,” adding that “it sounds good, but sadly it is not in the 12-tone language.” (Iverson also added that “someday there will be musicians comfortable improvising together in the pure 12-tone language,” and indeed four years later saxophonist John O’Gallagher published Twelve-Tone Improvisation (A Method for Using Twelve Tone Rows in Jazz). Ten years later in my own interview with him, despite admitting that he may not have even heard the track since recording, he said he was “not satisfied with it.”  He mentions that they “were just playing by ear and trying to sound like the style” without any planning beforehand.  While on tour, the improvised section was soon dropped, and Iverson says, “I’m sure I was the one that put my foot down about that. There is something about blowing on Babbitt that’s fundamentally cheesy.  It doesn’t need to be done.”

Iverson’s improvisation begins by playing three-note clusters built with half-steps and, while not twelve-tone or serial, maintains a very dissonant atonal style throughout.  Unlike the discontinuity of Babbitt, the improvisors work with obvious motives; they nearly vamp before a drum fill leads us back into Babbitt’s work as written.

Babbitt’s score is filled with specific and quick dynamic changes, having up to three different dynamic markings in the space of two beats, yet the trio’s recording completely ignores any changes in dynamics. Iverson explains, “The dynamics don’t ‘pop’ when you play Semi-Simple with drums…The minute Dave King was playing the drums with it, I pretty much ignored the dynamics. This disappointed Gunther Schuller when he heard us play Semi-Simple at the Regattabar.”

The Bad Plus’s recording of this work adheres very strictly to Babbitt’s metronome marking of quarter-note=84 for the entire work.  By keeping this tempo strict, they were able to find a groove hiding within the piece which I haven’t found in any of available conventional recordings of the work, which all take liberties with speeding up and slowing the tempo.  A solo pianist who doesn’t have to stay together with other players is more apt to vary the tempo and thus can choose to downplay the groove of the piece (if they even can find it). Iverson says: “The only other Babbitt I know that is as square rhythmically as Semi-Simple is Three Compositions for Piano. Usually Babbitt’s rhythms are as disjunct as his pitches and dynamics. Since Semi-Simple is only sixteenths, there was an amusing opportunity to ‘rock out.’”

The other recording of Semi-Simple Variations on the album is listed as the “alternate version” which features no adjustments to Babbitt’s formal design—the trio begins at the beginning of the piece and ends at the end.

The piano and bass parts are essentially identical to the full play-through in the other recording, while King’s drum part is slightly varied while maintaining the same essential features. The only other noticeable difference is a post-production addition of a scratchy needle-on-vinyl sound at the beginning that then acts as a filter that fades in and out changing the timbre of the music over the course of the track, which was added by producer Tchad Blake.

György Ligeti Fém (Etude No. 8)

The Bad Plus’s recording of Ligeti’s Fém (Etude No. 8), which Iverson describes as a combination of “the maniacal excess of Conlon Nancarrow and the rhythmic folklore of the Pygmies,” is treated in a similar way to the Babbitt. Here we also have a work originally for solo piano where Iverson plays the notes and rhythms as Ligeti wrote, Anderson doubles the lowest sounding pitches of the pianist’s left hand at pitch or at some number of octaves lower, and King creates his own drum part.

Iverson describes their version as a “drum feature” and points out that the rhythms come from African music.  Indeed, in her dissertation on Ligeti’s music, Amy Marie Bauer states that this etude’s rhythms, “model those of sub-Saharan African polyphony.”  Perhaps it is this influence from African music which makes the piece susceptible to jazz treatment, or at least the adding of a drum part to it.  Ligeti himself amusingly suggests this connection by asking the player to play “mit ‘swing’” (“with swing”) in the performance notes in the score.  Ligeti also writes that, while he gives the meter as 12/8, that “(Eine Taktmetrik existiert nicht, die Taktstriche dienen nur zur Synchronisierung)” “(There is no real metre here; the bar lines are only to help synchronisation.)”

Iverson says, “When great classical pianists play this piece, I think they hear it as a ground pulse of six to a bar, but our little secret was hearing it as four to a bar. If you are talking about ‘mit ‘swing,’’ if you’re going to swing out on it, you’ve got to play four to a bar, not six.”

Like the longer recording of the Babbitt, the group makes some significant changes to the form of the piece.  As this arrangement was designed to be a drum feature, the recording begins with a four-bar drum introduction, and the flow of the piece is interrupted by periodic drum breaks. The band also leaves out the soft and slower coda.

Form of György Ligeti’s Fém (Etude No. 8) performed by The Bad Plus on For All I Care, 

Section Drum Intro m. 1-12 Drum break m. 1-12 Drum break m. 13-24 Drum break m. 13-24 Drum break m. 25-57
# of  measures 4 12 4 12 4 12 4 12 4 33

Iverson explains the decision to exclude the coda: “Because we’re highlighting the drums in the composition, a little feature for Dave, the coda becomes extraneous.” This allows the piece to end on a literal high note and at its loudest dynamic marking (FFFF with a crescendo to “tutta la forza”) like several other of his Études, such as No. 14 “Columna infinita.”

The early ending is also heralded by added repetitions of the penultimate chord.

Comparison of György Ligeti’s Fém (Etude No. 8) m. 57 with “m. 57” of The Bad Plus’s recording of the work (drum part omitted)

 

 

When Iverson has played the piece as a solo work (as he did on The Rest is Noise tour with Alex Ross) he includes the coda as originally written.

Notably, there is no improvising in the piano and bass, as Iverson notes that “Reid and I have too much respect for the authenticity of Ligeti’s sophisticated atonal harmonic language to improvise on it.” While Iverson suggested the decision to include drum breaks was simple by saying, “It’s a drum feature, let’s have some drum breaks,” the insertion of them also helps to clarify the formal structure of Ligeti’s work, much like how the drums functioned in the Babbitt recordings.

This also helps to explain the trio’s approach to Ligeti’s dynamic markings in the score.  While the trio ignored Babbitt’s dynamic markings, they roughly follow Ligeti’s, for Ligeti’s use of dynamic changes help give each section more dramatic contrast.

Igor Stravinsky’s “Variation d’Apollon”

Compared to the Babbitt or Ligeti, the trio’s rendition of Stravinsky’s “Variation d’Apollon,” a movement from his 1928 ballet Apollon Musagète is freer and more relaxed. The group treats Stravinsky’s score more like a jazz player might use a song by George Gershwin, using the harmonies and melody as a guideline, much like a jazz lead sheet instead of a strict set of notes and rhythms to follow in the classical tradition. The piano and bass alter the pitches and rhythms as well as changes to the formal structure.

While the Babbitt and Ligeti pieces were from Iverson’s library, “Variation d’Apollon” was an Anderson discovery. (For a time in the mid-’90s, it was the music on Anderson’s answering machine.) Apollo is scored for string orchestra, but the group’s arrangement is based on the piano reduction that Stravinsky himself created for the ballet’s rehearsals.

After playing the whole movement through once, they elide the downbeat of the final measure’s arrival on an A major chord with a restart from the beginning but now down a minor sixth. Iverson jokes, “We put a little Beethoven modulation in there.”

After what is almost a conventional improvisation in the new key, the music builds and goes back to F major halfway through the “second chorus.” The shift back to the original pitch level is made fairly smooth by the fact that the bass line maintains a stepwise motion.

Comparison of Igor Stravinsky’s “Variation d’Apollon” (piano version) Third to Fifth measure after rehearsal 60, compared with The Bad Plus’s recording with expanded modulation in the “second chorus” from A to F major

 

From that point on, the score is once again followed reasonably accurately until the end, where the band adds a “tag” on to the form.

Comparison of Igor Stravinsky’s“Variation d’Apollon” (piano version) last two measures compared with of The Bad Plus’s recording of the work (drum part omitted)

 

 

Iverson’s playing does not adhere as strictly to the notes and rhythms written as in the other two works, but instead plays the piece more like one would a traditional jazz standard while also echoing the Baroque keyboard practice of improvising and adding spontaneous ornamentation. During the first play-through, he focuses on playing the melody while providing a chordal accompaniment underneath it, leaving most of the bass line to Anderson and only doubling it occasionally.  While he does include some of Stravinsky’s counterpoint and inner voice melodies, he ignores most of it while keeping the melody as written.  In general, Anderson’s bass line takes more liberties than Iverson’s melody, playing roughly half of Stravinsky’s written bass line while embellishing and improvising on the other half.  King’s drums are generally soft, often using brushes, and played in a “homemade electronica” style that he employed in the group’s recording of Flim by Aphex Twin.

In describing how The Bad Plus creates their own versions of pop and rock songs, bassist Reid Anderson says that, “We definitely don’t try to put it in a jazz framework.  Anything that we do, we just try to take it on its own terms, however it seems to us.”  Yet drummer Dave King explains the connection to jazz in their approach to these songs by saying, “We take music on which we can improvise and reharmonize and use all the tools that jazz musicians have always used, and try to turn it into something that sounds like we own it.”  But in their “interpretations with drum set,” as King puts it, of modernist classical works of Babbitt, Ligeti, and Stravinsky on For All I Care, the group employs very little improvisation and virtually no reharmonization.

The recordings of both Babbitt’s Semi-Simple Variations and Ligeti’s Fém (Etude No. 8) feature the pianist playing the pitches and rhythms of these piano works almost exactly as notated in the score.  In addition, the bass doubles a melodic line, most often the bass line, an improvised drum part is added, and the formal structure is modified in addition to several other minor changes.  Even though the longer version of the Babbitt includes a freely improvised section, Iverson is not sure it was successful, and they soon dropped the idea from their live performances.  For Stravinsky’s “Variation d’Apollon,” they treat the score in a freer way, viewing it more like a lead sheet, partially recomposing it, extending the form, and often embellishing the melody and bass line while ignoring the other contrapuntal lines.

Despite recomposing part of the Stravinsky, the group displays a tendency to not alter these works too much, as they clearly revere these pieces and did not want their treatment of them to come across as ironic or mocking.  As Iverson states, “We love the melody of Stravinsky’s ‘Variation d’Apollo’ so much that we wanted to play it twice as long as the original.  And why bother improvising when there is already such supreme beauty to enjoy?”  King adds that, “We’re actually quite earnest about everything we’re trying to take apart,” but he states that at the same time they are trying to assert their own group’s identity and figure out, “How do we take this non-ironic stance and make [the music] our own?” 

“Jazzing” classical music has been a practice since the early days of jazz, but the biggest problems with performing modernist classical works in a jazz context are how to include grooving drums that don’t sound out of place and how to bridge the harmonic gap between the compositions and what jazz players can improvise.  As Iverson points out, to solve the first of these problems, they had to, “Find material that Dave King can play and that pretty much solves the rest of it.”  For the second problem, they solved it by having the bass and piano essentially play the notes and rhythms of the compositions as written while keeping improvisation to a minimum.  While the drum parts are all improvised, they are all instruments of indefinite pitch and therefore bypass the issue of harmony altogether.  These two aspects, the grooving drums and the pitched instruments playing the pieces pretty much as written, may be what is most unique about these recordings.  Iverson says this is probably “the first time where the pianist sat and played professional level modernist discontinuous classical music accurately from a score and those other parts were then added to it.  That was probably relatively unprecedented.”

There is one big question still lingering that I haven’t yet addressed: are these renditions really jazz?  As mentioned above, these recordings largely forego the typical jazz practices of improvising and reharmonizing, yet they use several other “tools that jazz musicians have always used” to create strong connections with the jazz tradition, including the instrumentation of a standard jazz trio, a complex improvised drum part that is based around a groove, treating Stravinsky’s score like a lead sheet, and making significant alterations to the form of the original work.  Yet, determining whether these renditions are truly jazz or not is a question I’m not going to attempt to answer here, but it is something The Bad Plus have been asked about frequently.

A few years after For All I Care, the group went even further into the modernist classical world by creating and performing a complete version of Stravinsky’s seminal Rite of Spring, for which they approached the piece in a very similar way as they did the Babbitt and Ligeti.  Iverson explains, “It was essentially the same thing: mostly playing it straight in the piano but a couple tiny structural things here and there, add a repeat sign or something like that, stuff that is obvious and makes sense, then to figure out a way to integrate the drums.”

Iverson continues, “I’m not really sure this is a jazz version either.  Lots of stuff in TBP walks the line: ‘Is this jazz?’ Well, the TBP/Rite is on a whole other avenue.  Hey, if you want to call it jazz, great.  We certainly love jazz!  But for me, the phrase ‘a jazz version of ‘The Rite’’ sits there wilting on the vine…I’m already yawning.  We are trusting that TBP fans understand that we bring TBP to the room in whatever we do.  Imagine if I played jazz chords in our cover of Aphex Twin’s ‘Flim,’ wouldn’t that be awful?

But whatever style, genre, or category one might place these renditions in, I would certainly be the first to say that, above all, they are great music.

The Bad Plus presents a 'sonically different' Stravinsky | Music |  stltoday.com

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