Apocryphally, the first performance of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring with the Ballet Russe in the early 1900s was so atonal and unlike any other modern composition – much less in the performing art of dance – that the audience rioted. The roughly half-hour production follows the pagan rituals of a Russian tribe, which culminates in the sacrifice of a virgin by dancing her to death.1 Vaslav Nijinsky – the choreographer – claimed that the goal of The Rite of Spring was to elucidate the primality of pagan Russia, as the vast majority of ballets produced under tsarist Russia focused on principality and class.2 It has since been immortalized in popular culture through numerous references in film and television, including a particularly striking interpretation in Disney’s Fantasia that involved a then-scientifically accurate depiction of evolution and the extinction of the dinosaurs.3
Translating one of the most difficult compositions of the 20th century to a piano jazz performance by a three-piece is a tall order, even for maestros The Bad Plus, but it is not without precedent. Contemporary music has borrowed from classical trends since its inception; of particular note is heavy metal. Randy Rhoads – who performed on the first few Ozzy Osbourne solo albums – was a classically trained guitarist, of which influence may be seen in the interlude “Dee” off of 1980’s Blizzard of Ozz. Progressive metal is blatant in its classical influence, especially baroque music. Technical death metal – particularly Necrophagist’s Onset of Putrefaction – frequently experiments with tonality and scale, often utilizing the Dorian scale and similar non-standard scales. Additionally, techno artists frequently cover classical artists, with Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings being particularly common.4
This is not a simple task. Electronic music is rather lucky in this regard because electronic devices are capable of creating tons effects at once in the sampling and production process, giving a single producer or DJ the ability to play what would normally be five or six classical instruments at at time. For other musicians, the task is simply too much. The Bad Plus fall into this trap several times on The Rite of Spring, where the depth of composition simply cannot be accurately demonstrated by a three-piece. Most tellingly, the finale “Sacrificial Dance” is devoid of the terror felt by the virgin sacrifice by attempting to translate what would be played by an entire string section into the right hand of a pianist. The sheer enormity of volume and wall-of-sound approach for which Stravinsky’s score calls is not demonstrated, and leads to a relatively anticlimactic ending that cannot be saved no matter how many fortes are played.
Another shortcoming of The Bad Plus’s rendition is simply how un-jazzy it feels. There is little of the improvisation and mess with form that makes jazz so appealing. Opener “Adoration of the Earth: Introduction” hits the jazziness perfectly in the mid-/end-track freak out, but “Mystic Circle” is remarkably restrained on the upright bass for such a visceral part. The militaristic stomping of “The Augurs of Spring” is the most recognizable and famous part of The Rite of Spring, but it doesn’t translate to piano nearly as effectively compared to the original full symphony stomp. There’s simply a lack of jazziness, as if a jazz band is trying to play rather than interpret a classical suite.
Jazz and classical music have an extraordinarily rich past that would make for a wonderful marriage. Were The Bad Plus to spend more time making The Rite of Spring a jazz album – and musically, the boys passed the audition – and it has its moments, but the result is not an integration of the classical and jazz styles as one would hope.5
Adoration of the Earth:
1. Introduction – (5:05) – ★★★★★
2. The Augurs of Spring – (3:29) – ★★☆☆☆
3. Ritual of Abduction – (1:23) – ★★★★☆
4. Spring Rounds – (4:51) – ★★★★★
5. Games of the Two Rival Tribes / Procession of the Sage – (3:03) – ★★★☆☆
6. The Sage / Dance of the Earth – (1:48) – ★★★★☆
7. Introduction – (3:59) – ★★☆☆☆
8. Mystic Circle of the Young Girls – (3:01) – ★★☆☆☆
9. Glorification of the Chosen One – (1:43) – ★★★★☆
10. Evocation of the Ancestors / Ritual Action of the Ancestors – (5:32) – ★★★★★
11. Sacrificial Dance – (5:21) – ★★☆☆☆4
1Metal as fuck.
2Such as Sleeping Beauty and Nutcracker. Fantastic ballets, nonetheless!
3Pretty incredibly when you think about the film being made in 1940. Not even 15 years after the Scopes Trial, we’ve got a piece on evolution and dinosaurs. Disney had no fucks to give.
4DJ Tiësto has a really good version of this on Parade of the Athletes.
5This is a harsh review, but I wanted to focus on the difficulties of translating such a piece. The Bad Plus did not do a bad job here, and several tracks certainly sound good. There aren’t any tracks I hate – hence no one-star tracks. The Rite of Spring is one of my favorite classical works, so my criticism may be more intense than a that of a casual listener.