What does it take for a song or performance to earn the prestigious title of “masterpiece?” A program from the University Musical Society, “Masterpieces Revealed,” is dedicated to uncovering the elements requisite to such acclaim. Tonight, one such element will be explored in particular: inventiveness.
Masterpieces Reveled: The Bad Plus
Tonight at 7 p.m.
Professor of Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation Andrew Bishop, along with Professor of Music Theory Andrew Mead, will lead tonight’s session devoted to the music of up-and-coming jazz trio The Bad Plus, comprised of bassist Reid Anderson, pianist Ethan Iverson and drummer David King. Since the group’s debut in 2000, its inventive and creative performances and adaptations have gained national recognition from music publications like Rolling Stone and The New York Times.
The series is designed to examine the work of artists included on the UMS bill of performances, and this lecture accompanies The Bad Plus’s concert at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre on Thursday, Feb. 4.
The University of Michigan Museum of Art plays host to tonight’s presentation, and its website describes the lecture series as follows.
“In the ‘Masterpieces Revealed’ series, local artists provide a step-by-step exploration of some of the artistic works presented on the UMS season through live performance and discussion, deconstructing the nuances of performance and explaining what turns a piece into a ‘masterpiece.’ ”
Even though it’s often classified as a “traditional” jazz group, The Bad Plus transcends this label, moving into the territory of the musically masterful.
“The Bad Plus uses a traditional jazz piano trio (piano, bass and drums) but performs music from a wide variety of artists, not just jazz composers,” Bishop wrote in an e-mail interview with The Michigan Daily.
Bishop’s program will incorporate a live performance by The Bad Plus and a discussion with Mead and University students.
“I will be breaking down why artists stray from the standard repertoire, such as composers like Duke Ellington,” Bishop wrote. “I will mostly be talking about why jazz musicians are interested in exploring musical landscapes outside the traditional jazz format.”
In addition to his extensive knowledge of jazz, Bishop has personal relations to The Bad Plus from past collaborations with Anderson that should give his comments some particular insight into the trio’s musical inspiration.
“Reid is an amazing musician. We did one recording together — Gerald Cleaver’s ‘Adjust.’ He is an extremely versatile musician,” Bishop wrote.
Like Bishop, Mead is interested in how The Bad Plus breaks through traditions in music. In demonstrating the originality of its music, Mead and Bishop will focus on The Bad Plus’s rendition of Milton Babbitt’s “Semi-Simple Variations.”
“Babbitt is known — is even notorious — for writing music that is highly structured and not immediately appealing — at least to the average concert-goer,” Mead wrote. “So for a jazz group to be playing his music would seem really contra-intuitive.”
Mead attributes the success of The Bad Plus to its distinctive approach to jazz in comparison to historical traditions. This atypical musical style can be seen in its adaptation of “Semi-Simple Variations.”
“Obviously, things like free jazz and other developments over the past 50 or 60 years have enlarged and enriched the range of possibilities in jazz, but a continuous thread throughout has been the idea of improvisation,” Mead wrote.
“(The Bad Plus), in playing Babbitt’s piece, is playing an interesting game with this tradition, in that they are presenting, for the most part, a straight-ahead reading of a fully notated piece for solo piano,” he wrote.
Mead also commended the way The Bad Plus successfully adapts “Semi-Simple Variations” to its own style.
And really, that’s what this presentation is all about: how jazz is being interpreted by modern music makers. It will explore how the jazz musicians of today are making new masterpieces based on how the cool cats used to jive. The program, while music oriented, is not particularly technical, Bishop said, and should allow students from all different backgrounds to learn from it.