Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Talking with Ethan Iverson about Stravinsky and Sony

Ethan Iverson by John Whiting
On Dec. 19, a press release went out saying The Bad Plus had “returned to Sony and signed a multi-album deal.”

In April 2014, the Sony Music Masterworks label will release TBP’s interpretation of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” a Duke Performances commission that debuted at Duke in 2011 and came next to what was then called the Loring Theater in Minneapolis.

A brand-new The Bad Plus album will be issued on Sony’s jazz imprint, the recently re-launched OKeh Records, later in 2014.

With The Bad Plus scheduled to play the Dakota in Minneapolis tonight (Thursday, Dec. 26) through Sunday, when they’ll end their four-day residency with the Stravinsky, I couldn’t resist trying to get a few moments with Ethan, even though it’s the holidays and writers should definitely not pester artists during the holidays.

Ethan kindly agreed to a brief interview on Christmas Day. He was in Duluth, Minnesota, visiting his family, and we spoke by phone after their Christmas dinner.

PLE: How has the Stravinsky changed since you first played it at Duke in March 2011 and then at the Loring here in May?

Ethan Iverson: It hasn’t changed, really, except I hope we are playing it better!

The performance we saw at the Loring in 2011 included videos by filmmaker Cristina Guadalupe. Will we see those at the Dakota?

Actually, there will be no video. We call this the “concert” version, like a “concert” version of an opera.

The first movement begins with electronics by bassist Reid Anderson. I’ve heard rumors that he’ll play those live.

No, the first movement will be the same tape as always, and then we will play the Stravinsky down.

When we first spoke about the Stravinsky in 2011, you said, “There are things we can’t play. Sometimes I wish I had an extra arm or two.” Do you still feel that way?

I probably always will. I haven’t added a bunch of new stuff in, personally. The development has been to try to get more inside the way we play it, not closer to the way it was originally. So it’s probably more the way we want to play it now. Like any great thing you get to do over and over again, things develop.

About how many times have you performed the Rite live?

Close to 50 times.

Have you become more comfortable playing it?

Yes. We’ve all become more comfortable. But then there’s that danger zone where you think it’s easier than it is because you’ve done it so much.

Do you ever get sick of it?

No. It’s too good.

It’s just been announced that you’ve signed with Sony and will release a recording of the Rite in April 2014. Can you tell us about that?

We recorded it in New Jersey, in a nice old studio there, seconds away from New York City. It’s self-produced, like everything we’ve done from the beginning.

Yves Beauvais hung out for our first three Sony records [“These Are The Vistas” (2003), “Give” (2004), and “Suspicious Activity” (2005)], but we basically did our own thing. Yves signed us to Sony [the first time] and has been a big supporter of the band.

[Recording with a producer] makes the music go in a different direction. When I record with ECM, it’s a Manfred Eicher production. He’s a great producer on a wonderful label. When people recorded with Alfred Lion for Blue Note, or Creed Taylor for CTI, everyone played in a certain way. We’ve never been in that situation, and I don’t know if we could be.

[Note: Iverson recorded “All Our Reasons” with the Billy Hart Quartet for ECM in 2011. The quartet is Mark Turner on tenor saxophone, Ben Street on double bass, Iverson on piano, and Hart on drums.]

When the Stravinsky recording comes out in April, will you tour behind it and play the Rite more frequently?

We’d like to. The thing we’re really excited about is Mark Morris made up a dance to it last year. We’ve only done that live once. We’ll be doing it more with him in America, [starting in] Champaign-Urbana. It would be great if we could bring it to the right dance venue in Minneapolis.

[Notes: Mark Morris’s dance, “Spring, Spring, Spring,” debuted at the University of California, Berkeley, in June 2013, with The Bad Plus playing its version live. Here’s the New York Times reviewHere’s information about the University of Illinois performances in March 2014. Iverson is Morris’s former musical director.]

You’re also making a new The Bad Plus album for OKeh. Is it all originals, or a mix of originals and covers? More Ligeti or Babbitt or some other composer of new classical music?

We’re recording it in January. All the music is pretty much written. It’s another album of all originals [like “Made Possible” and “Never Stop”]. We’re refining the thing we always do. It’s us on a journey, committed to a concept. As usual, we split up the writing tasks, and we have a working title.

Do you think you’ll play more music by classical composers?

It’s a good idea, gratifying to do, but hard. So hard. I’m going to have to practice all day Saturday to get the Stravinsky up by Sunday.

We’ve had various offers [to record more material by other composers], but they tend to fade away as we show no interest.

When The Bad Plus signed with Columbia in 2002, people had fits. You were seen as the destroyers of jazz, and the saviors of jazz. How are things different today?

I don’t think anyone thinks we’re either of those things anymore. I know a lot of people really want to hear the Rite; I hear that from different jazz musicians and other unlikely sources. People have heard enough about it to know that we just play the score down, which as far as I know is unprecedented for jazz musicians.

The Sony press release says you have a “multi-album deal.” Do you already have plans beyond the two announced albums?

It’s definitely my impression of the industry now that everybody waits to see how things go. If the first two albums do nothing for Sony, why would we record a third one? If it’s going all right, we’ll do more.

Does being back on a major label change things for you?

I really don’t think so. We’re lucky to have a great team already in place – management, booking agencies. The irony is that Chuck Mitchell, who signed us to Sony, worked with us for our previous records, “Never Stop” [2010] and “Made Possible” [2012], which came out on the eOne label. He’s a great guy who’s been in our corner. Chuck moved from eOne to Sony, and we kind of followed his move. These are all people we’re excited to be associated with.



Stravinsky gets the Bad Plus treatment (Minneapolis StarTribune, May 17, 2011)

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