If you know the Bad Plus, you've heard their nervy takes on Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" and Blondie's "Heart of Glass," not to mention contemporary classics by composers Milton Babbitt and György Ligeti.
Their latest cover is the biggest leap yet for the prog-jazz trio of pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King. This weekend, they perform their reinvention of Igor Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" at the Loring Theater in Minneapolis.
Or maybe it's not such a leap. "In any of our covers," Iverson said from his home in Brooklyn, "we don't go for the deep tracks. We go for the obvious pieces. We're interested in modernism and abstraction, and this is the most famous piece of early modernism."
Co-commissioned by Duke University and New York's Lincoln Center, "On Sacred Ground: Stravinsky's Rite of Spring" had its world premiere at the North Carolina college in March.
"We didn't reorganize anything in the piece, with a few exceptions," Iverson said. "For the most part, it's faithful to the pitches Stravinsky wrote in the sequence that he meant them. What we bring to it is our own way of practicing music together as a band, which is something that only the three of us can do together. It almost doesn't matter what we play, I think it would sound like the Bad Plus."
Stravinsky's original work was scored for a very large orchestra, including a 60-piece string section. Did their version ever feel a bit thin?
"There are things we can't play," Iverson said. "We can't realize all the lines of counterpoint. You have to decide what's the most important thing at that point. The orchestra's like a huge ship of teeming information. If you're playing with fewer instruments, you have the opportunity to bring things into higher relief. I don't think it sounds thin, but sometimes I wish I had an extra arm or two."
Were they tempted to recruit more instruments? "We talked about adding accordion and clarinet. But then we said, 'Aw, let's just do it.'"
Duke had told the band they could do whatever they wanted for their commissioned piece, but Stravinsky wasn't a total surprise. The trio's 2009 CD, "For All I Care," includes their interpretation of Stravinsky's "Apollo." Still, it was a daunting proposition. Although "Rite" no longer sparks riots, as it did at its 1913 Paris premiere, it's still a beast.
"It's the sort of thing you want to put off as long as possible," Iverson admitted. "We agreed to do it a year ago and said, 'Let's learn it over the summer.' I totally didn't learn it over the summer.
"We worked from back to front and learned the hardest movement first. Once we could play that, we thought, 'We can do this.' But we didn't rehearse that much. None of us likes to rehearse. We're accustomed to playing two hours of complicated music with no rehearsal for 10 years now. That's what we do."
Jazz is about innovation and improvisation. Will we hear in Minneapolis what the audience heard at Duke? "We're playing it better at the Loring," Iverson said. "We keep changing it. There won't be big changes, but we've lived with it, and we're planning to bring out certain things more clearly."