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I realize that I'm going to sound like a broken record (for those of you under 40, go ahead and google the origin of that term) describing Duke Performances' collaborations with many of the artists they present. In 2011, along with Lincoln Center, they commissioned an audacious re-imagining of Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring from The Bad Plus, a genre-stretching jazz piano trio. Not content with a project that involved a generally well-known work, Duke Performances upped the creative expanse and commissioned another adaption by The Bad Plus: the American jazz saxophonist and composer Ornette Coleman's 1971 masterpiece, Science Fiction.There is nothing "safe" or popular about this, and, again, Duke Performances has gone way beyond the usual "book 'em and pay 'em" presenter to become an integral cog in the creative process. The concert was given in Baldwin Auditorium.
Ornette Coleman was, and to some extent still is, considered a "difficult" listen. Born in 1930, he was active in the heyday of most of the great artists and movements of jazz, but his was a singular voice that led to the coinage of the phrase "free jazz." To some, his playing was just an indecipherable howl with no discernible melodic foundation, while for many, he freed jazz from its predictable forms and orchestrations. The musicians involved in Science Fiction were like-minded individuals like Don Cherry on trumpet, Dewey Redmond, tenor sax, Charlie Haden on bass, and even some vocalists, as well as electrified effects that were way ahead of their time.
I have listened to all kinds of jazz from a very young age and consider myself knowledgeable of nearly all styles and players, but, I must admit that I was unfamiliar with this recording and, to do full justice to this concert, needed to decide if I should intently listen to Science Fiction ahead of time or just let the initial experience wash over me. I decided for the latter, justifying it as similar to hearing the premiere of a new work without advance preparation.
The Bad Plus is Reid Anderson, bass and vocals, Ethan Iverson, piano and David King, drums. In order to duplicate as closely as possible the original lineup of Science Fiction, a virtuoso horn section was added that included Tim Berne, alto saxophone, Ron Miles, trumpet, and Sam Newsome, soprano saxophone. This was not to be a note-by-note transcription of the work but rather a performance that evokes the spirit, using the basic outlines of an album that is spoken of with great reverence.
Perhaps to dispel any notion that this music is an ego-centered, solo flight display, the concert began with a ridiculously rhythmically complex passage delivered at warp speed by the three horn players and drummer with machine-like precision. Within moments of the start, one could sense that not only were we in the presence of extraordinary musicians but also that the energy and passion of Coleman's composition was both beautiful and frightening. The original recording contained eight cuts, and The Bad Plus played them all, but not quite in the same order.
While one would certainly not use the word "tame" to describe any of this composition or performance, it is hard to understand the critique thrown at this and other Coleman works – especially by jazz lovers. There is something for everyone: lyrical, nearly ballad-like moments, great ensemble work, unmatched virtuosity, and an economy and conciseness in the composition and adaptation. There are many jazz artists, great as they are, whose improvisations can outstay their welcome. On this occasion, it was just the opposite: like the famous show business saying, they left us wanting more. There was even some singing by bassist Reid Anderson in the lovely "What Reason Could I Give?"
The physically imposing Tim Berne nearly dwarfed his alto saxophone, but his demure demeanor belied the ferociousness of his playing. Ron Miles, playing what was announced as a cornet, played a bit like that other trumpeter named Miles, eschewing flashy display for evocative vibrato-less tones. Sam Newsome, on soprano sax, was a firestorm of cascading harmonies. However, I was totally mesmerized by both the aural and visual display of drummer David King. Using what was pretty much a basic drum kit, he produced a flurry of astounding rhythmic complexity and inventiveness that elevated the performance to an even higher level.
For most of the evening (approximately a 75 minute non-intermission set), pianist Ethan Iverson ably supported the other players without much spotlight on his own prodigious gifts. That all changed in the final piece, the highlight of the concert. There was a slow introduction that featured an electronic drum pad that simulated tympani. Eventually the piano took over with a stunning solo, actually two simultaneously. The right hand played astoundingly fast, harmonically intricate scales unlike anything I've ever heard. At the same time, the left hand, down low, played a disguised version of a familiar melody that at first I had trouble identifying. Then it hit me: this was the bridge of the Billie Holiday classic "Don't Explain." The right hand scales were then transferred to the soprano sax while the rest of the band played their version of this standard like a dirge. This was a spectacular ending to a truly wonderful adaptation of a recognized masterpiece, whether or not compared to the original. Let's hope the Duke Performances/The Bad Plus partnership continues for other imaginative commissions!