There’s something especially ironic about performing Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring during one of Minnesota’s darkest winter weeks, but the Bad Plus have made a career out of bending our perceptions of what we are hearing, seeing, and feeling. There are only three musicians in the band but they can somehow sound as rich as a full orchestra or as delicate as a solo violinist, and on a night when the temperature plummeted to -2 degrees they lit such a fiery flame inside the Dakota that it felt downright balmy.
The evening began with the Bad Plus’s pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson, and drummer Dave King posed motionless in front of their instruments, staring off as if deep in thought as an recorded introduction laid out the beginnings of The Rite of Spring‘s melody for the room. Just as the recording slowed and seemed ready to transition into a new phase, the band entered with a repeated series of bangs, drowning out the recording and announcing their presence dramatically.
One of the defining aspects of The Rite of Spring—beyond just how avant garde and revolutionary was for its time when it debuted exactly one century ago—is its use of quick-paced rhythms and repetition, and if there was one thing that was absolutely faithful about the Bad Plus’s rendition it was their reliance on these persistent rhythms, which help to anchor an otherwise chaotic and flurried piece. At times the notes flew by so quickly that it became mesmerizing—the fact that Iverson, an accomplished composer and pianist, had to rely on sheet music indicates just how intricate this arrangement was—and yet just as the ear was about to be lulled into the blur of notes they would pull it back to the center with a series of percussive marches or clangs.
The elephant sitting near the back of the room all weekend, of course, was the fact that this year’s Bad Plus holiday shows were happening in tandem with a series of standing-room-only farewell gigs at the Twin Cities’ only other jazz club, the Artists’ Quarter. It was the Bad Plus’s own Dave King who summarized the loss of the Artists’ Quarter so succinctly when he said that, “There aren’t many places left where you’re not four feet from a caesar salad while you’re playing this music,” and there were in fact plenty of people eating salads at the Dakota’s Bad Plus shows. But what I noticed on Sunday night was that people seemed to be making an extra effort to overcome the distractions of the restaurant environment and connect with the music above all else; waitstaff were shooed away and plates of food were left alone during the quietest moments, and the audience seemed to be collectively leaning toward the stage as The Rite of Spring unrolled.
At the end of the trio’s 40-minute rendition many in the room leapt to their feet, giving the band a standing ovation when they still had plenty more music to play. “Our first song was by Igor Stravinsky,” Anderson deadpanned, and from then on out the mood lightened and it was more like the Bad Plus’s other annual holiday shows.
“We’ve been doing this 14 years now, they tell us,” Anderson noted. “That’s a good long time to do anything.”
For the second half of their performance the trio debuted a handful of new songs. The first two, the Iverson-penned “Inevitable Western” and King-penned “Epistolary Echoes,” both contained flourishes of ’50s pop and doo wop, with deceptively simple melodies (including one punctuated by handclaps!) giving way to more technically complex improvisations. Anderson also delivered a very, um, special song about the band’s special time playing these Dakota shows. Sung over some Ellington-style piano noodling, his little improvised karaoke tune had the crowd in stitches.
Another new song followed, King’s fractured and frenetic “Gold Prisms Incorporated,” and the crowd met it with another standing ovation, applauding loudly until the group returned for an ovation. Appropriately, at the tail end of an evening that stretched nearly two hours but felt like it passed in an instant, the trio returned for a celebratory run through one of their best-loved songs, “Never Stop.”
Listen to the Bad Plus’s rendition of The Rite of Spring here: