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Solo: Crossing Streams

The Bad Plus’ pianist examines the classical-jazz paradox

In 1956 Herbie Nichols wrote, “Sometimes I burst into laughter when I think of what the future jazzists will be able to accomplish,” citing Hector Villa-Lobos, Igor Stravinsky, Paul Hindemith, Dimitri Shostakovich, Walter Piston and Béla Bartók as his own inspirations. I first read the liner notes to The Prophetic Herbie Nichols as a teenager, and I wondered then if I might be able to participate in this “future.”

Nichols must have smiled the very next year when Gunther Schuller, Milton Babbitt, Harold Shapero, George Russell, Charles Mingus and Jimmy Giuffre recorded Modern Jazz Concert, the first full-fledged combination of European high-modernism and American jazz. The name “Third Stream” was coined by Schuller to describe this new music. In the late ’50s and early ’60s, John Lewis and the MJQ, Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Bill Evans and other great jazz musicians participated on canonical Third Stream recordings.

I like those records a lot, but the limitation of the Third Stream movement was actually foreshadowed by Nichols himself in those same liner notes. Nichols name-drops Stravinsky, et al., but he is actually more passionate about how Denzil Best, Art Blakey and Max Roach get the drums to “sound” right for jazz. None of the late ’50s/early ’60s Third Stream music interfaces with drummers on any level but that of a cool handshake.

To be fair, serious drumming would have interfered with an understandable need to be careful with the charts. That’s problem A: How do you fit real, grooving drumming into the context of harmonically advanced and rhythmically disjunct modern classical music?

The next question is the one of improvising within the style. Bob Brookmeyer always correctly complains about how the style of his sophisticated big-band music is abandoned when the soloist starts improvising. And Brookmeyer’s music, while harmonically advanced, is still tonal jazz, not 12-tone or even really atonal.

That’s problem B: How do you bridge the gulf harmonically between really modernist classical music and what a normal jazz musician can improvise?

An important critical exploration of this topic is “Jazz and Classical Music: To the Third Stream and Beyond” by Terry Teachout in The Oxford Companion to Jazz. With the non-modernist exception of Gil Evans and Miles Davis on Sketches of Spain, Teachout concludes that the hybrids are usually more interesting than successful. I think he’s more or less right, at least as far as the modernist canon goes. (Jazz-classical blends like Donald Lambert’s version of Grieg’s “Anitra’s Dance,” Uri Caine’s Mahler or any piece composed by John Lewis are in another non-modernist category.) I have heard excellent Stravinsky and Webern performances by Dave Douglas and Bartók successfully covered by Richie Beirach and others—but almost never with grooving drums. And without drums, would a jazz musician really want to play it every day?

I hardly know all the examples. One to be admired is saxophonist Patrick Zimmerli, whose underrated 1990s output as a composer featured 12-tone designs of an intricacy unrivaled in the history of improvised music. His piece “The Paw” won the first-ever Thelonious Monk composition competition in 1993 adjudicated by Herbie Hancock. There was no question of Zimmerli playing with a house band: He had to fly his well-rehearsed group of pianist Kevin Hays, bassist Larry Grenadier and fiery drummer Tom Rainey down to play it. The record they made must come out someday.

I worked with Zimmerli in the mid-’90s. One piece he showed me was the two-page “Semi-Simple Variations” of Milton Babbitt, which became our sign-off theme when we played a duo gig.

Last year I was invited to perform at the release party for The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, the recent book by New Yorker critic Alex Ross. I played pieces by Ives, Schoenberg, Bartók, Shostakovich, Webern, Gershwin, Jelly Roll Morton and, yes, Milton Babbitt’s “Semi-Simple Variations.”

To get ready, I had to practice this repertoire furiously while on the road with The Bad Plus. One day at soundcheck, Dave King started playing drums along to “Semi-Simple Variations.” It actually sounded-surprisingly-not so bad. Twelve-tone funk? Well, that’s not really so far from, say, Tim Berne’s world. Reid Anderson joined us and we played it some more. With bass added, it seemed totally legit.

Huh. Could we learn some other modernist classical pieces to include on For All I Care, our new record of covers with vocalist Wendy Lewis? Maybe if we added real drums and were careful about how much we improvised we could make them work.

Years ago, Reid’s answering machine featured the striking slow movement from Stravinsky’s Apollon Musagete. (After leaving messages for Reid a few times, I got the score and recording.) And what about my absolute modernist hero, György Ligeti? One of his piano etudes, “Fém,” is based on an advanced African Pygmy rhythm, so adding drums would be easy, right? (Actually, this was the hardest one of the three to learn.)

This is how we made the arrangements:

We love the melody of Stravinsky’s “Variation d’Apollo” so much that we wanted to play it twice as long as the original. And why bother improvising when there is already such supreme beauty to enjoy? One of TBP’s signature styles is an acoustic version of modern electronica (we cover “Flim” by Aphex Twin). We tried infusing “Variation d’Apollo” with our “homemade electronica” feel, and it was a success.

“Fém” is an example of György Ligeti combining the maniacal excess of Conon Nancarrow and the rhythmic folklore of the Pygmies to make a new kind of piano etude. Reid and I have too much respect for the authenticity of Ligeti’s sophisticated atonal harmonic language to improvise on it. It is simply a feature for Dave, including drum breaks.

On one of our versions of Babbitt’s “Semi-Simple Variations,” we play it completely straight, but on the longer version we broke down and improvised a little bit. It sounds good, but sadly it is not in the 12-tone language. Someday there will be musicians comfortable improvising together in the pure 12-tone language, and on that day, somewhere, Herbie Nichols will laugh. Originally Published

Ethan Iverson

Ethan Iverson

Ethan Iverson has been writing about jazz for 15 years, mostly on his blog Do the Math. While he was the founding pianist of the Bad Plus, these days Iverson performs in a duo with Mark Turner and in Billy Hart’s quartet, has a longstanding relationship with Mark Morris, and teaches at the New England Conservatory of Music.