The Bad Plus performs Ornette Coleman’s Science Fiction
Saturday, Oct. 18, 2014
Baldwin Auditorium, Durham

How do you judge a cover song? Do you compare it, moment by moment, to the original? Or do you hear its own merits as a standalone piece of music? By revisiting saxophonist Ornette Coleman’s 1972 album Science Fiction at Duke’s Baldwin Auditorium Saturday night, The Bad Plus forced the audience to consider—and then reconsider—their listening approach.

In 2011, Duke Performances commissioned the trio to reinterpret Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, just ahead of that piece’s centennial. The massive, challenging project involved poring over scores to fit an orchestral masterpiece into the framework of an alt-jazz group.This year, Duke Performances offered what might at first seem like a gimme for the band—a chance to revisit Coleman’s album, a favorite childhood recording of theirs. Science Fiction aptly sums the middle of Coleman’s career, bridging the explosive revelation of group improvisation in his free jazz albums of the 1960s with his fusion years of the electric band Prime Time. What’s more, bassist Reid Anderson, pianist Ethan Iverson and drummer David King got to round out their lineup with a killer brass section—saxophonists Tim Berne and Sam Newsome and cornet player Ron Miles.

Still, in taking on the music of the free jazz master Coleman, the group had to navigate between two treacherous artistic territories. If they gave Coleman’s album the white-glove treatment and transcribed it like a museum piece, they could kill its wild spirit and produce an unlistenable product. If they went the other route and springboarded from Coleman’s head arrangements into free improvisation, they would offer a Bad Plus show, not a “Bad Plus plays Ornette Coleman” show—not that that’s a bad thing, really. Science Fiction wasn’t the only album lurking in the room, either. John Zorn’s 1988 Spy vs Spy—an album of Coleman covers that also featured Berne—seemed to exert some gravitational pull upon The Bad Plus’ tack. Zorn really made a Zorn album, not a Coleman album, emitting tunes from 10 different Coleman recordings in hardcore bursts.

Steadfast, though, The Bad Plus kept their wheel turned toward Science Fiction, only slightly rearranging the recording’s tracks for their set list. The result was a mixed evening with high points provided by King’s exuberant percussion and the sheer talent of the horn players. Not every tune on the record is a masterpiece. The ballad “What Reason Could I Give” plods a bit, although Anderson’s vocals sounded great with the horns. And the title track suffers an energy loss because of David Henderson’s spoken poem, despite The Bad Plus’ remix of the original recording of his reading.

On many tunes, the band took a little while to hit full speed in the middle, as if they had to forget they were covering Coleman in order to just play to their own individual means of invention. The longer the piece was, the further they relaxed within it.

The show’s awkward staging bore some responsibility here. Iverson’s piano was angled such that his back was essentially turned to the audience. He had to lean far back and twist to look around the trio of horn players in order to make eye contact with his bandmates. Wedged between the piano and the bass, Newsome, Miles and Berne were nearly shoulder to shoulder, hardly able to rock back and forth without checking each other. Only Newsome, resigned to the end of the horn line, was able to wander the stage when he wasn’t playing. But then he had to dart between Iverson and the front of the stage in order to allow the audience a clear sight line to the pianist. His inability to find the right place to stand seemed to cut his focus, compared to the quirky, noisy Berne and the understated, intense Miles.

Baldwin Auditorium didn’t help anyone out, either. Although the room is an unparalleled venue for classical music, its soft, wooden interior simply couldn’t handle King’s drums. The piano and bass were only truly audible when King switched to brushes. Early on, you had to give up trying to hear the late, great Charlie Haden in Anderson’s playing. He emerged in a few tunes, however; Anderson poured everything into the spy-movie bass line of “Rock the Clock,” which offered enough quiet patches for him to stand out. Iverson shined in that tune, too, reaching into the piano to thump the bass end of the harp with an open hand and drag his keys across the treble strings.

King, however, was in his element from start to finish, grinning from ear to ear. He appeared unleashed within this music. Miles was King’s foil, statuesque on his cornet, methodically building musical lines that made the others hold their breath to see where he would go.

It would have been interesting to not have known the group was covering Coleman, to have taken the music at face value. When you could release the comparison and simply listen to this show as music, it rocked. You had to fold up the program, with its explanation of Coleman’s historical significance. You had to pretend that Baldwin’s glowing, $15-million interior was a dark, claustrophobic club. You had to forget about the legendary lineup of the original recording—Haden’s bass and Don Cherry’s trumpet and even Coleman’s horn.

Then, you heard Miles’ brilliance on “Street Woman,” leaving inordinate amounts of time between phrases and sending King and Anderson into visibly ecstatic suspense. Then, you felt Berne’s thrilling imbalance between honks, screams and coos on ”The Jungle Is a Skyscraper,” and the birdlike flights that Newsome took on “Law Years.”

And then, the show wasn’t Science Fiction, anymore; it was just really good music that might have made Ornette Coleman grin from ear to ear.