For the Bad Plus, “The Rite of Spring” is the ultimate cover. Ever since the jazz trio established a firm beachhead among rock fans at the turn of the 21st century with its canny, often grandiose interpretations of songs such as Abba’s “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the band has continued to make forays into territory far afield from the American Songbook.
For their most ambitious project, drummer Dave King, bassist Reid Anderson and pianist Ethan Iverson turned their attention to another era’s creative maverick. Settling into the SFJazz Center on Thursday for a four-night run, the Bad Plus is opening and closing the engagement with its acclaimed version of Stravinsky’s 1913 masterpiece. For Friday and Saturday’s concerts, the trio will be focusing on new material from the forthcoming album “Inevitable West.”
The Bad Plus premiered “On Sacred Ground: Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring” in 2011 as part of a yearlong residency at Duke University. They’ve revisited the piece numerous times since, including a collaboration with Mark Morris Dance Group as part of Cal Performances’ Ojai North Festival last year (Iverson worked as Morris’ music director in the late 1990s). The trio recently released a startlingly effective recording of its “Rite” interpretation, which is based largely on Stravinsky’s four-hand piano transcription. While resisting the understandable jazz impulse to elaborate on the score, the trio captures the piece’s Dionysian energy and wild syncopation.
"We just wanted to play it and not be part of that trajectory of jazz guys who have riffed on it or taken segments of it to blow over," King said in a recent conversation at Duende, where he was performing in a trio led by tenor saxophonist Chris Speed. "We really wanted to play the piece down and pay homage to it that way. We’re really playing ‘The Rite of Spring,’ but we’re doing it with bass, drums and piano."
Exploring music outside the usual jazz parameters has enabled the Bad Plus to reach audiences that might not otherwise seek out an acoustic piano, bass and drums trio. But the band’s real focus has always been on original material, with all three players contributing a steady flow of new music to the band’s book. Hailing from the Midwest - Iverson grew up in Wisconsin, while King and Reid became friends as teenagers in Minneapolis - they share a similar “Coen brothers-like outlook on life,” Iverson says, and divergent musical sensibilities that come together seamlessly in the trio.
Anderson possesses the gift of a natural melodicist with a pop sensibility (he named his publishing company Dirty Showtunes Music), while King writes intricate, odd-metered surrealistic prog rock (his publishing company is called Franz Kline in the Dunk Tank Music). The band’s straight man musically and sartorially, Iverson is usually decked out in a suit and tie, and he tends to write conventional jazz tunes or pieces based on the chord changes of a standard (his publishing company is the no-frills Iverson Music).
Each player is given free rein within the trio, and their shared commitment to avoiding tired jazz tropes means every piece attains an unmistakable Bad Plus sound. In performance the trio has developed a group concept that eschews the tired jazz custom of playing a theme followed by a round of solos. The group rides the tidal surge of King’s drum work, as all three musicians constantly shape the music’s flow.
"The idea that you’ve got to let the bassist play on every tune is absurd," Iverson says. "Not everyone needs to make a statement on every piece. When I’m improvising, Dave and Reid are improvising full on, too, and we tend to know exactly what we’re doing emotionally with the music. You know that pause in a jazz performance when someone ends a solo and people on the bandstand are waiting to see what’s next? That never happens in the Bad Plus."
All three players have various side projects, but Iverson has been the most visible. One of jazz’s early Internet adopters, he maintains a literate, aesthetically engaged website ( www.dothemath.typepad.com), where he also holds forth on crime fiction, posts extended interviews with fellow musicians and shares his obsession with drummers.
When the brilliant, beloved, but criminally underexposed Oakland drummer Donald “Duck” Bailey died last year, it was Iverson who provided the most incisive and informed tribute. “He styled everything,” Iverson wrote of Bailey. “His home-painted clothes, his unusually angled drum set and, of course, his inimitable beats.”
Iverson has championed underappreciated masters such as Albert “Tootie” Heath, recording the critically hailed 2013 trio session “Tootie’s Tempo” (Sunnyside) with bassist Ben Street, which landed the 78-year-old drummer on the cover of JazzTimes magazine for the first time. He also tours and records with drum maestro Billy Hart in a quartet with Street and former SFJazz tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, a quartet that plays June 16 at Kuumbwa in Santa Cruz and June 18 at Yoshi’s in Oakland.
Iverson knows that a jazz band is only as good as its drummer, and the Bad Plus’ singular sound flows from that insight.
"Ethan is the first pianist I ever worked with where he wants the drums just wailing," King says. "That’s why he goes out and celebrates these guys from other eras. When you talk music with him, all he does is talk about the drums challenging the dynamic scope of the band. Pianists don’t usually talk like this. They’re divas by nature. Ethan is a little bit of a diva in his own right. But he’s never going to complain about the drums" getting in his way.
The Bad Plus: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Friday, noon and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 7 p.m. next Sunday. $15-$45. SFJazz Center, 201 Franklin St., S.F. (866) 920-5299. www.sfjazz.org.