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Modernist Classical Music on The Bad Plus’s For All I Care

Keane Southard

MHS 590: Jazz and Classical Interactions

May 7, 2019
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Introduction

In February 2009, the jazz trio The Bad Plus, consisting of pianist Ethan Iverson, 1 bassist

Reid Anderson, and drummer Dave King, released the album For All I Care.2 The trio, which

has been around since 2000, has been described as “the most controversial group in jazz today,” 3

“a rock group that plays jazz,”4 and “the loudest, most hard rocking acoustic trio in [jazz]

history,”5 after becoming well-known for performing and recording versions of popular music

songs by groups as diverse as ABBA, Nirvana, Blondie, Black Sabbath, and the Pixies. In

addition to being their first album to feature a musical guest, in this case the singer Wendy

Lewis, and contain exclusively non-original works, For All I Care was also remarkable for

containing the group’s first forays into classical music, featuring three works by twentieth-

century classical composers Igor Stravinsky, György Ligeti, and Milton Babbitt.

How did a jazz trio known for their versions of pop and rock songs come to create

arrangements of classical works, especially ones by these twentieth-century modernists? What

was the process of creating “jazz” versions of these works, and how are they different from the

1
Iverson left the group at the end of 2017 and has since been replaced by pianist Orrin
Evans.
2
While the album was released in the U.S. at this time, it had already been released in
Europe since October 2008.
3
J. D. Considine, "DISC OF THE WEEK JAZZ THE BAD PLUS: Shockingly new and
surprisingly familiar," The Globe and Mail (1936-Current), Feb 03, 2009, R3.
4
Reid Anderson, “Evocation of the Ancestors: An Interview with the Bad Plus,”
interview by John Garratt, Pop Matters, May 4, 2014, https://www.popmatters.com/181233-
evocation-of-the-ancestors-an-interview-with-the-bad-plus-2495665711.html
5
Thom Jurek, Review of For All I Care, by The Bad Plus. AllMusic.
https://www.allmusic.com/album/for-all-i-care-mw0000804338
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composers’ original scores? Where do these renditions fit in the tradition of “jazzing the

classics”? These are the questions I will strive to answer in the course of this paper.

Historical Precedents and the Tradition of “Jazzing the Classics”

The practice of “jazzing”, also known as “swinging,” the classics dates back to at least

the 1930s and 40s where it was practiced by dance band arrangers such as Francis “Chappie”

Willet and Claude Thornhill. John Wriggle defines this practice as “the musical arrangement of,

or the inclusion of explicit musical reference to, European classical repertoire in combination

with syncopated dance rhythms, jazz instrumentation, or popular song forms.” 6 Seen as “either

an irreverent poke at the establishment or as a genuine adulation of the European repertoire

manifested through efforts to bring the music to a wider (popular) audience,” it is distinct from

“symphonic jazz,” such as Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, a term which usually describes original

compositions.7

In addition to Willet’s arrangements, such as his 1940 version of Beethoven’s ‘Sonata

Pathétique’ for Jimmie Lunceford’s band, and Thornhill’s 1940 arrangement of Dvořak’s

“Humoresque,” many subsequent jazz musicians have made their own jazz versions of classical

works, such as Jacques Loussier’s interpretations of J.S. Bach, Donald Lambert’s version of

Edvard Grieg’s “Anitra’s Dance,” and Uri Caine’s arrangements of Gustav Mahler. Jazzed

versions of modern classical music have been rarer, but some notable ones include Dave

Douglas’s interpretations of Igor Stravinsky and Anton Webern on his 1993 album Parallel

6
John Wriggle, “Jazzing the Classics: Race, Modernism, and the Career of Arranger
Chappie Willet.” Journal of the Society for American Music 6, no. 2 (2012): 176.
7
Wriggle, “Jazzing the Classics,” 176.
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Worlds, and Richie Beirach’s versions of Bela Bartok’s music on his 1999 album Round About

Bartok.

Iverson is acutely aware of how jazz has always intersected with European classical

music: “The older I get and the more research that I do, the more convinced I am that jazz fans

always knew European classical music. It’s actually the separation that leads to some problems,

but as I say, Jelly Roll Morton knew it, Sonny Clark knew it. Whoever you think is especially

soulful and pure jazz, the odds are that they spent at least some time in that world.” 8 Indeed, all

three members of the trio are knowledgeable about classical music. As Anderson has pointed out

about the group, “We’ve all played classical music. Ethan is very serious about the classical

piano repertoire. We’re all big fans of classical music.”9 Iverson in particular identifies as a jazz

pianist but says that what he can contribute to the field is “melding the influence of modernist

composition,”10 and that he is “committed to some kind of blend and can’t stop now. I certainly

appropriate Stravinsky, Ligeti, Richard Strauss, Alfred Schnittke, and Thomas Adés in my

improvisations.”11

However, modernist classical music presents unique challenges for those who want to

play it in a jazz context. In a 2009 article for JazzTimes, Iverson wrote that the two primary

issues here are “How do you fit real, grooving drumming into the context of harmonically

advanced and rhythmically disjunct modern classical music?” and “How do you bridge the gulf

8
(Ethan Iverson, personal communication, March 3, 2019)
9
Anderson, interview.
10
(Ethan Iverson, personal communication, March 3, 2019)
11
Ethan Iverson, “Interviewing the Interviewer: A Conversation with Ethan Iverson,”
interview by Patrick Zimmerli, NewMusicBox, December 22, 2016,
https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/interviewing-the-interviewer-a-conversation-with-ethan-iverson/
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harmonically between really modernist classical music and what a normal jazz musician can

improvise?”12 While calling Douglas’s Stravinsky and Webern performances “excellent” and

Beirach’s Bartok “successful,” he laments that these jazz versions are “almost never with

grooving drums. And without drums, would a jazz musician really want to play it every day?” 13

With the three classical works on For All I Care, he and the trio sought ways to overcome these

two obstacles. He speculated that “Maybe if we added real drums and were careful about how

much we improvised we could make them work.” 14

Milton Babbitt’s Semi-Simple Variations

Milton Babbitt, known as a modernist composer of uncompromisingly complex serial and

electronic music, may seem to many to be one of the least likely classical composers to find one

of his works placed in a jazz context, but Babbitt has more connections to jazz than most people

realize. In 1957, he composed All Set, that, while a serial work, was written for small jazz

ensemble and, according to the composer, has “jazz-like properties…the use of percussion, the

Chicago jazz-like juxtapositions of solos and ensembles recalling certain characteristics of group

12
Ethan Iverson, “Crossing Streams,” JazzTimes. March, 1, 2009.
https://jazztimes.com/columns/solo/crossing-streams/
13
Iverson, “Crossing Streams.”
14
Iverson, “Crossing Streams.”
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improvisation.”15 Nearly half a century later in 2002, he wrote A Gloss on ‘Round Midnight for

piano based on Thelonious Monk’s jazz standard. 16

How did The Bad Plus get the idea to make a jazz version of Babbitt’s solo piano work

Semi-Simple Variations? Iverson recalls that he was introduced to the piece by Patrick

Zimmerli, a jazz saxophonist who loves modern classical music and with whom Iverson became

friends with in the mid-90s jazz scene in New York City. 17 In addition to playing the work in a

recital at New York University where Iverson was a student, 18 Zimmerli and Iverson played it as

their “sign-off theme” whenever they played a duo gig together. 19 In 2008, Iverson was invited

to perform at the release party for Alex Ross’s book The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth

Century and decided to perform Babbitt’s piece there. Only finding time to practice it during

soundchecks while on tour with The Bad Plus, one day drummer Dave King started playing

drums with it while Iverson practiced. In Iverson’s words, “It actually sounded-surprisingly-not

15
Grove Music Online, s.v. “Babbitt, Milton,” by Elaine Barkin, Martin Brody, and
Judith Crispin, accessed April 14, 2019,
http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com.ezp.lib.rochester.edu/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/978156
1592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-1002256107
16
Babbitt also flirted with a career as a popular songwriter, but as Jerome George
Kuderna points out “the unpopular serious composer won out over the unserious popular one.”
Jerome Kuderna, “Analysis and Performance of Selected Piano Works of Milton Babbitt
(1916-),” [PhD diss., New York University, 1982,] 2.
17
Iverson, “Crossing Streams.”
18
Iverson, interview.
19
Iverson, “Crossing Streams.”
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so bad. Twelve-tone funk?...Reid Anderson joined us and we played it some more. With bass

added, it seemed totally legit.”20

When comparing Babbitt’s original work to the Bad Plus’s recordings, the most obvious

difference is the addition of double bass and drum set. I’ll look first at the longer of the two

versions of the work included on the album, which is track six, before considering the “alternate

version” of the work, which is track twelve. The pianist plays the notes and rhythms of Babbitt’s

work more or less exactly as written,21 while the bass doubles the melody at pitch during the

theme (first six measures) and two octaves below during Var. I. For the rest of the piece, the

bass doubles the lowest note of the left hand of the piano at any given time with a couple of

exceptions, such as going up to play the E-flat in the last beat of the first measure of Var. V

instead of holding the lower D as the score indicates.

Being comprised solely of instruments of indefinite pitch, the drum set part is the only

part of the trio not playing Babbitt’s written notes. While the very complex drum part is

apparently improvised, as evidenced by a noticeably varied part in the “alternate version,” it is

used to help find the groove in the piece and to clarify its formal structure. For the most part,

King does not keep a regular beat but constantly changes and shifts his groove in order to accent

and highlight different “hits” in the piece. Particular moments that are emphasized by hits

include the three isolated sixteenth-notes in the fourth measure of Var. II (with partially open hi-

20
Iverson, “Crossing Streams.” Kuderna’s dissertation on Babbitt’s piano works actually
noted the piece’s rhythms as being “so jazzy and syncopated that one would never suspect that
they were subjected to the same minute control as the pitch aggregates,” this more than twenty-
five years before The Bad Plus’s discovery of them. Kuderna, “Analysis and Performance of
Selected Piano Works,” 55.
21
Slight deviations exist, such as the left hand D in the last measure of Var. II being held
until the end of the bar instead of lasting just a sixteenth-note in length (0’27”-0’28”).
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hat hits, 0’24”-0’25”), the two isolated sixteenth-notes in the first half of the fifth measure of

Var. III (with choked ride cymbal crashes, 0’41”-0’42”), and the left hand E-flat and E-natural in

the first two measures of Var. V (with cymbal crashes, 0’58”-1’00).

King’s drumming clarifies the structure of the work by either adding fills in silent or

static moments of the work or resting during them. For example, at the end of the theme and the

beginning of Var. I, there are two beats of rest specified (0’09”), which King observes as well

(apart from a single soft hi-hat stomp on the second half of beat one in the first bar of Var. I.)

Connecting Variations I and II together, the group adds an extra beat to the final measure of Var.

I, essentially interpreting the comma caesura in the music as a full beat, during which King adds

a fill that leads into the next variation culminating with a cymbal crash on the downbeat (0’18”-

0’19”). The drums come to a halt at the end of Var. II when the piano holds a lone G for the last

beat and a half, but then adds a fill on the three silent beats at the beginning of Var. III, 22 thus

more clearly showing where these variations begin and end (0’28”-0’30”). The beginning of

Var. IV is signaled by the only time King plays a steady groove in the piece, a 4/4 rock beat with

hi-hat on every eighth-note and snare hits on what sound like the second and fourth beats.

However, what sounds like three bars of 4/4 meter actually takes place over a 3/4 bar, a 2/4 bar,

two 3/4 bars, and half of another 2/4 bar. Var. V, which is connected to the end of Var. IV by a

held A-flat in the pianist’s left hand, is likewise connected by the drums with a snare roll and fill

that culminates on a cymbal crash on the E-flat at the end of the first bar of the variation (0’57”-

0’59”). Finally, the drum part helps signal the end of the work by playing the final three

22
The meter for this variation alternates between 3/2 and 2/2, unlike the rest of the piece
where the quarter note gets the beat, so technically this fill lasts 1.5 beats but the doubling of the
length of the beat seems to be aurally undetectable to me.
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sixteenth-notes on snare and toms with the melody, which consists of repeated D-flats in the

pianist’s right hand (1’06”-1’07”).

At this point, the trio has played Babbitt’s whole work through once, and the remaining

minute-and-a-half of the recording then goes beyond the bounds of the original work. A forty-

second improvisation follows before the group returns to the music as written, repeating the final

two variations (IV and V) and then the theme and first variation before finally ending. This

formal structure is shown in Chart 1.

Chart 1, Form of Milton Babbitt’s Semi-Simple Variations performed by The Bad Plus on

For All I Care, Track 6

Section Whole piece Improvisation Repeat of Repeat of


(Theme, Var I-V) Var. IV and V Theme and Var. I
Duration 1’07” 40” 20” 20”

# of measures 36 Unknown 12 12

Of the classical works on this album, the improvisation section in this recording is the

only section that is not directly rooted in the composition it is a part of, and Iverson seems to

have mixed feelings about this improvisation. In the previously cited JazzTimes article, he states

that “on the longer version [of Semi-Simple Variations] we broke down and improvised a little

bit,” adding that “it sounds good, but sadly it is not in the 12-tone language.” 23 Ten years later in

my own interview with him, despite admitting that he may not have even heard the track since

23
Iverson, “Crossing Streams.” Iverson also adds that “someday there will be musicians
comfortable improvising together in the pure 12-tone language,” and indeed four years later
saxophonist John O’Gallagher published a book on this topic: John O’Gallagher, Twelve-Tone
Improvisation: A Method for Using Tone Rows in Jazz, (Mainz, Germany: Advance Music,
2013.)
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they recorded it, he said he was “not satisfied with it.”24 He mentions that they “were just

playing by ear and trying to sound like the style” without any planning beforehand. 25 While on

tour, the improvised section was soon dropped, and Iverson says “I’m sure I was the one that put

my foot down about that…I’m happy to take away the dynamics for the style, but there was

something about blowing on Babbitt that’s fundamentally cheesy really. It doesn’t need to be

done.”26

The improvisation section starts with a one beat pickup in the bass. Iverson begins by

playing three-note clusters built with half-steps and, while not twelve-tone or serial, maintains a

very dissonant atonal style throughout. Anderson’s improvised bass part focuses on two-note

dissonant leaps, recalling the use of dissonant interval leaps in the written piece’s bass line, such

as in the second half of the third measure of Var. III and the first two measures of Var. V.

King’s drums return to the 4/4 rock beat that he used in Var. IV, but often breaks this groove and

the sense of a 4/4 meter, such as at the 1’17” mark where he seems to allow an extra beat of

silence before restarting the 4/4 rock beat. For the final eleven seconds of the improvisation

section (1’36”-1’47”), Iverson returns to the three-note clusters and plays them in a repeated

pattern, King plays steady eighth-notes on a partially open hi-hat, and the bass returns to the two-

note leap motive before a drum fill leads us back into Babbitt’s work as written.

In a typical jazz performance, after playing the entire melody and then having solos, an

ensemble would usually return to the “head,” the beginning of the melody as written, to play

through it one more time before ending. The reason that this recording doesn’t follow that

24
(Ethan Iverson, personal communication, March 3, 2019)
25
(Ethan Iverson, personal communication, March 3, 2019)
26
(Ethan Iverson, personal communication, March 3, 2019)
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format seems to be because by returning to Var. IV the drums can keep the same 4/4 rock beat

going from the end of the improvisation through the first several measures of this variation,

making the retransition very smooth, as this was the only place the first time through the work

where King used a regular beat. After a single added beat at the ending of Babbitt’s written

music, the trio then goes back to the beginning and plays the theme and first variation again

before ending. King’s drum part here shows some changes compared to the first time through

these variations, such as the fill leading into Var. V having more notes than it did before

(compare 0’56”-0’58” to 1’56”-1’58”).

The added instrumentation and alterations to the form are not the only changes that the

trio made to the piece. Babbitt’s score is filled with specific and quick dynamic changes, having

up to three different dynamic markings in the space of two beats (e.g. the last measure of Var. I),

yet the trio’s recording completely ignores any changes in dynamics, which is a decision Iverson

consciously made.27 As he says, “The dynamics don’t ‘pop’ the minute when you play [it] with

drums…The minute Dave King was playing the drums with it, I pretty much ignored the

dynamics.”28

The Bad Plus’s recording of this work adheres very strictly to Babbitt’s metronome

marking of quarter-note=84 for the entire work. By keeping this tempo strict, they were able to

find a groove hiding within the piece which I haven’t found in any of available conventional

27
Iverson said that Gunther Schuller heard the group play the work in concert and was
disappointed that they didn’t observe Babbitt’s written dynamics. (Ethan Iverson, personal
communication, March 3, 2019)
28
(Ethan Iverson, personal communication, March 3, 2019)
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recordings of the work, which all take liberties with speeding up and slowing the tempo. 29 A

solo pianist who doesn’t have to stay together with other players is more apt to vary the tempo

and thus can choose to downplay the groove of the piece (if they even can find it), much like

how different pianists can choose whether or not to bring out the “swing” rhythms and

syncopations in the third variation of the second movement “Arietta” of Beethoven’s Piano

Sonata No. 32, Op. 111, in C minor.30

The other recording of Semi-Simple Variations on the album is listed as the “alternate

version” which features no adjustments to Babbitt’s formal design—the trio begins at the

beginning of the piece and ends at the end. 31 The piano and bass parts are essentially identical to

the full play-through in the other recording, while King’s drum part is slightly varied while

maintaining the same essential features: the same hits are all there and the 4/4 rock beat in the

same place, but some fills are changed or different drums are used for different hits. The only

other noticeable difference is a post-production addition of a scratchy needle-on-vinyl sound at

29
The only commercial recording of the work I’ve been able to find is by Robert Taub:
Milton Babbitt, Semi-Simple Variations, Robert Taub, track 3 on Milton Babbitt Piano Works,
Harmonia Mundi HMC905160DI, 1986, compact disc. Youtube has a video of a scrolling score
set to an uncredited recording, but by comparison it seems that this is the Taub recording:
‘s60020011’ “Babbitt Semi Simple Variations, w score SD,” Youtube, accessed April 12, 2019,
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rb5Klc-8WPY. Youtube also has a performance by a very
young pianist named Niklas Kniesche: Niklas Kniesche, “Milton Babbitt Memorial Concert –
‘Semi-Simple Variations’ (Babbitt),” Youtube, October 9, 2011,
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RxEwYxhb3sg.
30
As composer and drummer Brendan Faegre points out, “Babbitt’s serial rhythms are
actually pretty funky, and playing his music tight really draws that out.” Brendan Faegre,
January 28, 2014, comment on Sliwinski “’Sometimes’ Music,”
https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/sometimes-music/.
31
The one exception is the added beat at the end of Var. I which also happened in the
longer version.
12

the beginning that then acts as a filter that fades in and out changing the timbre of the music over

the course of the track.32

György Ligeti’ Fém (Etude No. 8)

The Bad Plus’s recording of Ligeti’s Fém (Etude No. 8), which Iverson describes as a

combination of “the maniacal excess of Conon [sic] Nancarrow and the rhythmic folklore of the

Pygmies,”33 is treated in a very similar way to Babbitt’s piece. Here we also have a work

originally for solo piano where Iverson plays the notes and rhythms as Ligeti wrote, Anderson

doubles the lowest sounding pitches of the pianist’s left hand at pitch or at some number of

octaves lower, and King creates his own drum part to fit with it. Iverson describes their version

as “a drum feature” and points out that the rhythms come from African music. 34 Indeed, in her

dissertation on Ligeti’s music, Amy Marie Bauer states that this etude’s rhythms “model those of

sub-Saharan African polyphony.”35 Perhaps it is this influence from African music which makes

the piece susceptible to jazz treatment, or at least the adding of a drum part to it. Iverson points

out that the piece “is based on an African Pygmy rhythm, so adding drums would be easy,

right?”36 Ligeti himself suggests this connection by asking the player to play “mit ‘swing’”

32
Iverson thinks this was probably added by producer Tchad Blake. (Ethan Iverson,
personal communication, March 3, 2019)
33
Iverson, “Crossing Streams.”
34
(Ethan Iverson, personal communication, March 3, 2019)
35
Amy Marie Bauer, “Composition process and parody in the music of György Ligeti,”
(PhD diss., Yale University, 1997), 39.
36
Iverson, “Crossing Streams.”
13

(“with swing”) in the performance notes in the score. 37 Ligeti also writes that, while he gives the

meter as 12/8, that “(Eine Taktmetrik existiert nicht, die Taktstriche dienen nur zur

Synchronisierung)” “(There is no real metre here; the bar lines are only to help

synchronisation.)”38 Iverson notes that “When great classical pianists play this piece, I think

they hear it themselves as a ground pulse of six to a bar, but our little secret to playing it

ourselves was hearing it as four to a bar, and if you are talking about ‘mit ‘swing,’’ if you’re

going to swing out on it, you’ve got to play four to a bar, not six.” 39

Like the longer recording of the Babbitt, the group makes some significant changes to the

form of the piece. As this arrangement was designed to be a drum feature, the recording begins

with a four-bar drum introduction before the piano and bass join in at the start of Ligeti’s score

(0’07”). After twelve measures, we have our first clearly defined sectional division in Ligeti’s

work marked by the first time both of the pianist’s hands have two eighth-rests at the same time,

which happens right before the first change in dynamics on the downbeat of m. 13. The trio uses

this structural point to insert a four-bar drum break (0’30”-0’38”) before repeating the first

twelve measures of the score again. After another four-bar drum break (1’01”-1’09”), the trio

goes on to the next section of the score only to insert another drum break when this twelve-bar

section comes to a close, signaled as in the first section with two eighth-rests at the same time in

both staves (1’32”-1’40”). The group then repeats this twelve-bar section of the score again

followed by another drum break (2’03”-2’11”), before continuing on in the score. The track

37
György Ligeti, “Fém (Etude No. 8),” In Études Pour Piano - Deuxième Livre, (New
York: Schott Musik International, 1998), 12. English translations are from the score.
38
Ligeti, “Fém (Etude No. 8)”, 12.
39
(Ethan Iverson, personal communication, March 3, 2019)
14

ends at m. 57 and leaves out the soft and seemingly slower coda. 40 This formal design is shown

in Chart 2.

Chart 2, Form of György Ligeti’s Fém (Etude No. 8) performed by The Bad Plus on For All

I Care, Track 3

Section Drum m. 1-12 Drum m. 1-12 Drum m. 13- Drum m. 13- Drum m. 25-57
Intro break break 24 break 24 break
# of 4 12 4 12 4 12 4 12 4 33
measures

Iverson explains the decision to exclude the coda: “[Because] we’re highlighting the

drums in the composition, a little feature for Dave, then we don’t need to play the coda.” 41 This

allows the piece to end on a literal high note and at its loudest dynamic marking (FFFF with a

crescendo to “tutta la forza”) like several other of his Études do, such as No. 14 “Columna

infinita.” Notably, there is no improvising in the piano and bass, as Iverson notes that “Reid and

I have too much respect for the authenticity of Ligeti’s sophisticated atonal harmonic language to

improvise on it.”42 The early ending is also heralded by added repetitions of the penultimate

chord of m. 57. Instead of playing the chord as an eighth-note followed by two eighth-rests

before the final chord, the trio plays it four times within this dotted quarter beat, as shown in

Example 1 (3’14”-3’16”).

40
The coda actually maintains the same tempo (marked “lo stesso tempo” in the score),
but instead of eighth-note chords we have only dotted-quarter-note chords which are three times
longer and give the impression of a slower tempo. György Ligeti, “Fém (Etude No. 8),” in
Études Pour Piano - Deuxième Livre, [New York: Schott Musik International, 1998], 17.
41
(Ethan Iverson, personal communication, March 3, 2019)
42
Iverson, “Crossing Streams.”
15

Example 1, Comparison of György Ligeti’s Fém (Etude No. 8) m. 57 with “m. 57” of The

Bad Plus’s recording of the work (drum part omitted)

While Iverson suggested the decision to include drum breaks was simple by saying “It’s a

drum feature, let’s have some drum breaks,” 43 the insertion of them also helps to clarify the

formal structure of Ligeti’s work, much like how the drums functioned in the Babbitt recordings.

This also helps to explain the trio’s approach to Ligeti’s dynamic markings in the score. While

the trio completely ignored Babbitt’s dynamic markings, they roughly follow Ligeti’s but only

from the pickup to m. 37 of the score (2’34”) until the end. 44 Ligeti’s use of dynamic changes

mostly happen between formal sections of the work to help give each section more contrast and

to highlight the end and beginning of each, but up until m. 37 the trio’s insertion of drum breaks

has fulfilled this function instead and therefore the dynamic changes are not as necessary.

43
(Ethan Iverson, personal communication, March 3, 2019)
44
While the dynamic changes in The Bad Plus’s recording are noticeable here, they tend
to not be as drastic as Ligeti’s score asks for, such as the drop from FFF to PPP going into m. 49
(2’58”). While dynamic levels are subjective, this drop sounds more like going from F to MP to
me. Part of this may be due to post-production audio compression of the dynamic levels.
16

Igor Stravinsky’s “Variation d’Apollon”

The trio’s rendition of Stravinsky’s “Variation d’Apollon,” a movement from his 1928

ballet Apollo (originally titled Apollon Musagète by the composer), is the freest treatment of the

three classical works on this album. The group treats Stravinsky’s score more like a jazz player

might use a song by George Gershwin, using the harmonies and melody as a guideline, much

like a jazz lead sheet instead of a strict set of notes and rhythms to follow in the classical

tradition. As a result, the differences between the score and the recording focus less on the use

of the drums and more on how the piano and bass alter the pitches and rhythms as well as

changes to the formal structure. According to Iverson, Anderson’s answering machine used to

feature this movement of Stravinsky’s ballet, which is how he became acquainted with it. 45

While Apollo reached its final form in the instrumentation of a string orchestra, the group’s

arrangement is based on the piano score that Stravinsky himself created for the ballet’s

rehearsals,46 and so this will be the score that I will compare The Bad Plus’s version to. 47

Like the Babbitt and Ligeti, the group alters and extends the form of the work to what

Iverson calls “a kind of sonata form.”48 After playing the whole movement through once, they

elide the downbeat of the final measure’s arrival on an A major chord with a restart from the

beginning but now down a minor sixth (as the first chord was originally an F major chord,

45
Iverson, “Crossing Streams.” Iverson has since become a huge Stravinsky fan and has
“listened to every Stravinsky work.” Iverson, interview.
46
(Ethan Iverson, personal communication, March 3, 2019)
47
Igor Stravinsky, Apollon Musagète, Ballet en deux Tableaux (Reduction pour Piano à
2 mains par l’auteur), (Berlin: Russischer Musikverlag G.m.b.H, 1928.)
48
(Ethan Iverson, personal communication, March 3, 2019). Iverson takes credit for
“recomposing” the piece “to make it longer.”
17

2’07”), although this gets shifted up an octave at rehearsal 59 to become a major third higher

than the original (2’26”). When they reach the fourth measure after rehearsal 60, the trio

immediately repeats this measure but back at the original pitch level (a major third lower).

Example 2 compares Stravinsky’s score with the trio’s recomposition of this section.

Example 2, Comparison of Igor Stravinsky’s “Variation d’Apollon” (piano version) Third

to Fifth measures after rehearsal 60 compared with The Bad Plus’s recording of the work

(drum part omitted)

This all happens amidst a giant crescendo landing at a climax at rehearsal 61 (2’55”-3’05”). The

shift back to the original pitch level is made fairly smooth by the fact that the bass line maintains

a stepwise motion. The score is once again followed until the final measure where two new

measures are inserted that sequence the penultimate measure, with the bass line and harmonies
18

sequencing up by step while the melody sequences down, before ending on an A major triad

(4’10”-end, see Example 3).

Example 3, Comparison of Igor Stravinsky’s “Variation d’Apollon” (piano version) last

two measures compared with of The Bad Plus’s recording of the work (drum part omitted)

Iverson’s playing does not adher as strictly to the notes and rhythms written as in the

other two works, but instead plays the piece more like one would a traditional jazz standard.

During the first play-through, he focuses on playing the melody while providing a chordal

accompaniment underneath it, leaving most of the bass line to Anderson and only doubling it

occasionally, such as for the first two bars of rehearsal 59 (0’23”-0’28”), the two bars before

rehearsal 61 (0’52”-0’57”), and the fourth, fifth, and sixth bars after rehearsal 62 (1’33”-1’41”).

While he does include some of it, he ignores most of Stravinsky’s counterpoint and inner voice
19

melodies while keeping the melody as written. The one exception where he embellishes the

melody happens in the second and third bars after rehearsal 63 where he turns each sixteenth-

note into two thirty-second-notes to match Anderson’s parallel doubling of the bass line. In

general, Anderson’s bass line takes more liberties than Iverson’s melody, playing roughly half of

Stravinsky’s written bass line while embellishing and improvising on the other half. King’s

drums are generally soft, often using brushes, and played in a “homemade electronica” 49 style

that he employed in the group’s recording of Flim by electronica composer Aphex Twin

(Richard D. James) on their second album, These Are the Vistas, from 2003.50

When the second run-through begins, the bass and drums drop out for the first four

measures as Iverson begins to embellish, ornament, and improvise on the melody (2’06”-2-19”).

As the group approaches the key adjustment (to borrow a term from sonata form) where the

music returns to its original pitch level, they begin a massive crescendo which culminates in the

grandest moment of the recording yet. When the opening three-chord motive returns at rehearsal

61, it is now at a very loud dynamic level enhanced by Iverson’s left hand moving lower in the

bass range and King’s rolling on the hi-hat and tom-toms (3’04”-3’11”). This subsides after one

measure as the trio returns to a soft dynamic level and to the melody as written. A subito forte

four bars before rehearsal 63 with every eighth-note doubled to two sixteenths begins the most

sustained loud portion of the track, complete with more extensive ornamentation and

improvising before calming down at the return of the opening three-chord motive four bars from

the end. Other differences between Stravinsky’s score and the trio’s recording include stretching

49
Iverson, “Crossing Streams.”
50
Richard D. James, Flim, The Bad Plus, track 8 on These Are the Vistas. Columbia
Records 87040, 2003, compact disc.
20

the opening motive of three quarter-note chords to three dotted-quarter-note chords whenever it

happens, ignoring most of the indicated articulations (especially staccati), and taking liberties

with Stravinsky’s fairly scant dynamic markings.

Conclusions

In describing how The Bad Plus creates their own versions of pop and rock songs, bassist

Reid Anderson says that “We’re [sic] definitely don’t try to put it in a jazz framework. Anything

that we do, we just try to take it on its own terms, however it seems to us.” 51 Yet drummer Dave

King explains the connection to jazz in their approach to these songs by saying, “We take music

on which we can improvise and reharmonize and use all the tools that jazz musicians have

always used, and try to turn it into something that sounds like we own it.” 52 But in their

“interpretations with drum set,” as King puts it, 53 of modernist classical works of Babbitt, Ligeti,

and Stravinsky on For All I Care, the group employs very little improvisation and virtually no

reharmonization. The recordings of both Babbitt’s Semi-Simple Variations and Ligeti’s Fém

(Etude No. 8) feature the pianist playing the pitches and rhythms of these piano works almost

exactly as notated in the score. In addition, the bass doubles a melodic line, most often the bass

line, an improvised drum part is added, and the formal structure is modified in addition to several

other minor changes. Even though the longer version of the Babbitt includes a freely improvised

section, Iverson is not sure it was successful, and they soon dropped the idea from their live

51
Anderson, interview.
52
Ted Panken, "Stray Cats," Jazziz (Summer, 2009): 45.
53
Liane Hansen, “The Bad Plus Tackle Stravinsky's 'Spring',” Washington, D.C.: NPR,
2011, https://search-proquest-com.ezp.lib.rochester.edu/docview/857783044?accountid=13567
21

performances. For Stravinsky’s “Variation d’Apollon,” they treat the score in a freer way,

viewing it more like a lead sheet, partially recomposing it, extending the form, and often

embellishing the melody and bass line while ignoring the other contrapuntal lines.

Despite recomposing part of the Stravinsky, the group displays a tendency to not alter

these works too much, as they clearly revere these pieces and did not want their treatment of

them to come across as ironic or mocking. As Iverson states, “We love the melody of

Stravinsky’s ‘Variation d’Apollo’ [sic] 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?” 54

King adds that “we’ve never come and approached any of our reworkings with irony and

sometimes people have maybe though that about us. But we’re actually quite earnest about

everything we’re trying to take apart,” but he states that at the same time they are trying to assert

their own group’s identity and figure out “how do we take this non-ironic stance and make [the

music] our own?” 55

“Jazzing” classical music has been a practice since the early days of jazz, but the biggest

problems with performing modernist classical works in a jazz context are how to include

grooving drums that don’t sound out of place and how to bridge the harmonic gap between the

compositions and what jazz players can improvise. As Iverson points out, to solve the first of

these problems, they had to “find material that Dave King can play and that pretty much solves

the rest of it.”56 For the second problem, they solved it by having the bass and piano essentially

play the notes and rhythms of the compositions as written while keeping improvisation to a

54
Iverson, “Crossing Streams.”
55
Hansen, “The Bad Plus Tackle Stravinsky's 'Spring'.”
56
(Ethan Iverson, personal communication, March 3, 2019)
22

minimum. While the drum parts are all improvised, they are all instruments of indefinite pitch

and therefore bypass the issue of harmony altogether. These two aspects, the grooving drums

and the pitched instruments playing the pieces pretty much as written, may be what is most

unique about these recordings. As Iverson says, this is probably “the first time where the pianist

sat and played professional level modernist discontinuous classical music accurately from a score

and those other parts were then added to it. That was probably relatively unprecedented.” 57

In this essay, I have avoided discussing a question that often comes up with this music:

are these renditions really jazz? As mentioned above, these recordings largely forego the typical

jazz practices of improvising and reharmonizing, yet there are several other “tools that jazz

musicians have always used” that the trio use to create strong connections with the jazz tradition,

including the instrumentation of a standard jazz trio, a complex improvised drum part that is

based around a groove, treating Stravinsky’s score like a lead sheet, and making significant

alterations to the form of the original work. 58 Yet, determining whether these renditions are truly

jazz or not is a question I’m not going to attempt to answer here, but it is something The Bad

Plus have been asked about frequently. A few years after For All I Care, the group went even

further into the modernist classical world by creating and performing a complete version of

Stravinsky’s seminal The Rite of Spring, for which they approached the piece in a very similar

way as they did the Babbitt and Ligeti. Iverson recounts that it “essentially is the same thing:

mostly playing it straight in the piano but a couple tiny structural things here and there, add a

57
(Ethan Iverson, personal communication, March 3, 2019)
58
John Wriggle details several examples of dance band arrangers from the late 1930s and
early 1940s significantly changing the form of the classical works they were arranging. Wriggle,
“Jazzing the Classics,” 195-96.
23

repeat sign or something like that, stuff that is obvious and makes sense, then to figure out a way

to integrate the drums.”59 Of their rendition of that work, Iverson says,

I’m not really sure this is a jazz version either. Lots of stuff in TBP [The Bad Plus] walks
the line: ‘Is this jazz?’ Well, the TBP/Rite is on a whole other avenue. Hey, if you want
to call it jazz, great. We certainly love jazz! But for me, the phrase ‘a jazz version of
‘The Rite’’ sits there wilting on the vine…I’m already yawning. We are trusting that
TBP fans understand that we bring TBP to the room in whatever we do. Imagine if I
played jazz chords in our cover of Aphex Twin’s ‘Flim,’ wouldn’t that be awful? 60

But whatever style, genre, or category one might place these renditions in, I would certainly be

the first to say that, above all, they are great music.

59
(Ethan Iverson, personal communication, March 3, 2019)
60
Jason Rabin, “The Bad Plus ‘On Sacred Ground,’” JazzTimes, February 22, 2011.
24

Bibliography

Anderson, Reid. “Evocation of the Ancestors: An Interview with the Bad Plus.” Interview by
John Garratt. Pop Matters. May 4, 2014. https://www.popmatters.com/181233-
evocation-of-the-ancestors-an-interview-with-the-bad-plus-2495665711.html

Babbitt, Milton. Semi-Simple Variations. Edited by Isadore Freed. Bryn Mawr, PA: Theodore
Presser Company, 1957.

Bauer, Amy Marie. “Composition process and parody in the music of György Ligeti.” PhD diss.,
Yale University, 1997.

Considine, J. D. "DISC OF THE WEEK JAZZ THE BAD PLUS: Shockingly new and
surprisingly familiar." The Globe and Mail (1936-Current), Feb 03, 2009.

Hansen, Liane. “The Bad Plus Tackle Stravinsky's 'Spring'.” Washington, D.C.: NPR, 2011.
https://search-proquest-com.ezp.lib.rochester.edu/docview/857783044?accountid=13567

Iverson, Ethan. “Crossing Streams.” JazzTimes. March, 1, 2009.


https://jazztimes.com/columns/solo/crossing-streams/

Iverson, Ethan. “Interviewing the Interviewer: A Conversation with Ethan Iverson.” Interview by
Patrick Zimmerli. NewMusicBox. December 22, 2016.
https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/interviewing-the-interviewer-a-conversation-with-ethan-
iverson/

Jurek, Thom. Review of For All I Care, by The Bad Plus. AllMusic.
https://www.allmusic.com/album/for-all-i-care-mw0000804338

Kuderna, Jerome George. “Analysis and Performance of Selected Piano Works of Milton Babbitt
(1916-).” PhD diss., New York University, 1982.

Ligeti, György. “Fém (Etude No. 8).” In Études Pour Piano - Deuxième Livre. New York: Schott
Musik International, 1998.

O’Gallagher, John. Twelve-Tone Improvisation: A Method for Using Tone Rows in Jazz. Mainz,
Germany: Advance Music, 2013.

Panken, Ted. "Stray Cats." Jazziz (Summer, 2009): 42-47.

Rabin, Jason. “The Bad Plus ‘On Sacred Ground.’” JazzTimes. February 22, 2011.

Sliwinski, Adam. “’Sometimes’ Music.” NewMusicBox (blog), NewMusicUSA, January 27,


2014, https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/sometimes-music/
25

Stravinsky, Igor. Apollon Musagète, Ballet en deux Tableaux (Reduction pour Piano à 2 mains
par l’auteur). Berlin: Russischer Musikverlag G.m.b.H, 1928.

Wriggle, John. “Jazzing the Classics: Race, Modernism, and the Career of Arranger Chappie
Willet.” Journal of the Society for American Music 6, no. 2 (2012): 175-209.

Discography

Babbitt, Milton. Semi-Simple Variations. Robert Taub. Track 3 on Milton Babbitt Piano Works.
Harmonia Mundi HMC905160DI, 1986, compact disc.

Babbitt, Milton. Semi-Simple Variations. The Bad Plus. Track 6 on For All I Care. Heads Up
Records 3148, 2009, compact disc.

Babbitt, Milton. Semi-Simple Variations [alternate version]. The Bad Plus. Track 12 on For All I
Care. Heads Up Records 3148, 2009, compact disc.

James, Richard D. Flim. The Bad Plus. Track 8 on These Are the Vistas. Columbia Records
87040, 2003, compact disc.

Ligeti, György. Fém (Etude No. 8). The Bad Plus. Track 3 on For All I Care. Heads Up Records
3148, 2009, compact disc.

Stravinsky, Igor. Variation d’Apollon. The Bad Plus. Track 10 on For All I Care. Heads Up
Records 3148, 2009, compact disc.