The Bad Plus, Carter, Mahler

First published in The Big Issue, 18-25 May, 2014

The Bad Plus are a band of many guises. From the heart of America’s Midwest they became the slick-marketed success story of contemporary jazz, an accessibly rambunctious, gently intellectual trio who could cover Kraftwerk, Queen, David Bowie, Nirvana, Blondie, all with a cocked eyebrow and a quirky groove. Whatever their starting material, it was always subsumed into an iconic TBP sound: Ethan Iverson’s clean, thoughtful piano lines; bassist Reid Anderson’s rich, roaming swing; drummer David King throwing down irresistible polyrhythmic grooves. Their latest venture is a cover of The Rite of Spring, and bizarrely it’s the strictest thing they’ve done. They follow the progression of Stravinsky’s ballet score with reverent diligence, as though slightly cowed by the piece rather than feeling free to make it their own. Certainly it’s tamer than Stravinsky’s original, but there are some great touches along the way: the Introduction emerges from a heartbeat, like the start of a life cycle; Spring Rounds gains a sparse, sultry drawl. Best of all, The Bad Plus remind us that this music was meant for dancing. [Sony Masterworks 88843023042]

Elliott Carter composed almost until the day he died, a year and a half ago, at the august age of 103. He just never stopped working, and his music never stopped sounding contemporary. Carter was one of the towering modernists of the 20th century, yet there’s so much more to his music than any cold, acerbic associations the term ‘modernist’ might conjure. He was born in New York in 1908 and attended the first American performance of the Rite of Spring in 1924; even at the tender age of 14 he already gravitated to anything exciting and new. In the 30s and 40s he infused his music with cleverness: Greek quotations, neo-classicism, daft colloquialisms picked up from Charles Ives. But as he matured he ditched the references and sculpted a language that was simply his own. Maybe his music never grew old because his curiosity never did – “Carter’s music is always in good humour, you feel its high spirits, the tongue-in-cheek, the recklessness,” the conductor Daniel Barenboim commented not long before Carter died. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra are joined by pianist Nicolas Hodges and percussionist Colin Currie for a two-day Carter retrospective, including early neo-classical works (Holiday Overture, Variations for Orchestra), the late Dialogues II and the epic Symphonia: sum fluxae pretium spei. Glasgow, May 28-29

In Manchester, Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra perform Mahler’s last complete symphony, his Ninth. Mahler had death on his mind when composing the score (his daughter had recently died of diphtheria and he had been diagnosed with a fatal heart condition) and the music shifts through serenity, resignation, bitter-sweet nostalgia, brutal nihilism. The finale’s long retreat into silence resonates with anything from despair to transcendence, depending on the interpretation. The composer Alban Berg once described the Ninth as “the expression of a tremendous love for this earth, the longing to live on it peacefully”. No performance should leave you feeling cold. Elder opens the concert with Brahms’s rarely-heard Nänie, a setting of Schiller that culminates in a resounding hommage to art. Manchester, May 22.

AND ANOTHER THING: The second London Contemporary Music Festival heralds a week of far-reaching events, from Noh plays to live DJs sets, Salvatore Sciarrino to Gavin Bryars, all in a former carpet factory off Brick Lane in London’s East End. May 26 – June 1

GO TO: Elisabeth Leonskaja at the Wigmore Hall, London. The doyenne of old-school Russian pianism plays an all-Schubert programme including his fiendishly stormy Wanderer Fantasy. May 20