Duke Performances has in a very short time elevated itself from its status as a very good presenter of first-quality performance art from around the world, to that of a commissioning patron as well as presenter. This underwriting of new art has the beneficial effect of giving Triangle audiences the first listen or the first look at new works in a series of world premieres at Duke. Last week it was Steve Reich and Kronos Quartet with an incredibly important new work; this week, The Bad Plus, a three-man jazz group, wowed the sell-out crowd in Reynolds Theater with an audacious reworking of The Rite of Spring. I think Stravinsky would have liked it.
The Bad Plus has made much original music, but the group also has a long history with "deconstructing" a wide range of other music and reconstructing it to fit their instruments and their kick-ass attitude. So when Duke Performances' Aaron Greenwald offered them a joint commission from Duke and Lincoln Center to do whatever they wanted in the way of a new piece, it was not too surprising that they would choose to wrangle with some power music, the music that kicked the doors shut on the 19th century once and for all. Over the last 98 years, some of the juice has drained out of The Rite, especially from the piano version, but Ethan Iverson's piano, Reid Anderson's bass, and David King's drums fully recharge it for this century in the group's ferocious re-scoring that packs all the grand noise of the orchestral version into a trio.
The performance of The Rite was accompanied by projected video by Cristina Guadalupe and Noah Hutton, composed of a flow of abstracted or blurred images that pulsed, throbbed and whirled in a visual corollary to the music. But the real show was the musicians themselves: Iverson, seated foursquare at one of Duke's huge Steinways, his smooth-domed head as reflective as the glossy piano, fingers racing like flames among the pale keys. Anderson, tall and hawk-eyed, wrapped over his bass, as if bewitching it into its repeated resonant thrills. David King at his drum kit with a greedy grin, his smooth-domed head, his cymbals and brushes all scattering reflections onto the backdrop as he generated the music's heartbeat and its most delicate textures. It was really fantastic how each of three used his instrument for both rhythm and melody as the moment demanded. To hear the unforgettable motif central to The Rite conveyed by the various tones of King's percussion set was amazing, and when it came from Anderson's bass, it just slayed me. But then, here came Iverson picking it out on the piano, sounding like a nightingale… ravishing. The whole was so rich and engrossing and alive that it seemed to pass in a much shorter time than its actual 40 minutes.
After taking numerous bows before a standing, roaring crowd, The Bad Plus returned, still pumped, for a short set of other, previously recorded songs. They were all very good, but sounded… trivial, after the dynamo, the spring tornado they'd unleashed with The Rite. Perhaps it would have been more effective the other way around. Or, in the old tradition of repeating a world premiere after the intermission, as Kronos did with the Reich piece, they could have just started over. I'm sure that would have been fine with everyone.