DJ Sessions: Blurring The Lines Between Rock, Jazz And Classical

Apr 16, 2014

In the latest installment of DJ Sessions, pianist Christopher O’Riley joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to talk about his favorite group that’s making waves in the classical community.

O’Riley says The Bad Plus is comprised of great composers. The jazz group is known for its famous covers of pop songs, like Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.” But its latest album reinterprets Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.”

Songs Heard In This Segment

  • The Bad Plus, “Iron Man”
  • Igor Stravinsky, “The Rite of Spring” performed by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
  • Igor Stravinsky, “The Rite of Spring” performed by The Bad Plus
  • Giorgi Ligeti, “Metal” performed by pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard
  • Giorgi Ligeti, “Metal” performed by The Bad Plus
  • Aphex Twin, “Flim” performed by The Bad Plus
  • Radiohead, “Paranoid Android” performed by Christopher O’Riley
  • Nirvana, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” interpreted and performed by The Bad Plus



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OK. Time now for another edition of the HERE AND NOW DJ Sessions.


TOM PETTY: (Singing) There goes the last DJ.


JAMIE FOXX: (Singing) DJ, won't you play this girl a love song?


NIC CESTER: (Singing) Dance, little DJ, come on.


RIHANNA: (Singing) Come, Mr. DJ, song pon de replay.

HOBSON: Joining us here in the studio is Christopher O'Riley, host of NPR's classical music show "From the Top." He is also a well-known pianist himself. Christopher, welcome.

CHRISTOPHER O'RILEY, BYLINE: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

HOBSON: And you wanted to talk about a group called The Bad Plus. What should we know about them?

O'RILEY: I met them in Istanbul many years ago. I was playing at the jazz festival there, and then we went to club Babylon, and saw a late show. And there's this jazz trio: Ethan Iverson, pianist, Reid Anderson, bass, and Dave King on drums. And I just remember seeing them and having Ethan declaim the first verse of what turned out to be Black Sabbath's "Iron Man."


O'RILEY: They've primarily been famous for covering pop bands. But they're each, in their own right, fantastic composers. And they - I just fell in love with them from that point on. I would go so far as to say my girlfriend who, if anything jazz-like appears on my iPod, it's instant fast-forward time. But The Bad Plus she loves. And so they each have - they each bring a disparate energy to the band, and they all also bring a different compositional voice to the table.

So now they've become more famous not just for their covers of David Bowie and Blondie and Neil Young and Nirvana and all these other guys, but they've also, you know, covered Stravinsky and Babbitt and Ligeti. And now they've come out with "The Rite of Spring."

HOBSON: Well, and let's not just talk about it. Let's hear it. I want to first hear the original Stravinsky "Rite of Spring," performed here by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.


HOBSON: OK. And now let's hear "Rite of Spring" by The Bad Plus.


HOBSON: What do you like about what they have done here?

O'RILEY: Well, I think there's a certain condensed and intensely pressured idea about doing this piece in shortened, and in straightened circumstance. I think I find more excitement in the "Rite of Spring" playing it on one piano than I do listening to the orchestra. I just think there's something to be said about having an economy of means with that, kind of, fusionary energy about the piece.

HOBSON: It sounds more dramatic in a way.

O'RILEY: I think so. I mean, it's more personal.


HOBSON: They have also covered the Hungarian composer Giorgi Ligeti - the piece, "Metal." Let's first listen to the original.


HOBSON: OK. Now, let's listen to the version from The Bad Plus.


HOBSON: So you're saying your girlfriend would like that. She'd let it play on the iPod.

O'RILEY: She would totally let that one play, you know? And I just think that piece is tailor-made for them because, you know, you have Dave, who's just the most incredible drummer I've ever heard and just the way he turns a typical drum set into a real orchestra. And he's got kids' toys that he's playing in the setup, and the way they're so synchronous. It's just terribly exciting to hear them play.


HOBSON: Well, Bad Plus has not just covered some classical music, but also Nirvana, Aphex Twin. Let's listen to the cover of "Flim" by Aphex Twin.


HOBSON: And, Christopher, we should say people that listen to HERE AND NOW regularly probably hear this a lot because use it as a music bed.

O'RILEY: Oh, do you?

HOBSON: We do.

O'RILEY: Good for you.

HOBSON: So we've heard that one before, but tell us about it.

O'RILEY: Well, I'm, you know, I'm a big Aphex Twin fan myself. And I think what Dave does is incredible because the drum-like sounds that Aphex Twin uses - you know, Richard D. James - the sound is - it's almost double timed or quadruple timed, I mean, because he just kind of wallows in the technological. And so Dave does his damnedest to really keep up with that sort of frenetic inhuman energy. And it's a little tour de force for him.


HOBSON: Well, Christopher, we can't have you here without talking about your music just a little bit here. I want to listen to you doing Radiohead's "Paranoid Android."


HOBSON: The original song is great. Your version is brilliant. What draws you to doing something like that, though?

O'RILEY: The two things that draw me to play any kind of music really are, first and foremost, its sort of a sensual harmonic sense, you know, chords and harmonies that really get under your skin and make your skin tingle and things like that. So that's number one.

Number two is really a compelling sense of counterpoint, a weave of voices that you'd have, let's say, in a Shostakovich fugue or with, you know, Radiohead's music, which is - despite the fact only one of the guys in the band reads music - all five always contribute one thread to each song. And so that weave really is a compelling way me getting into a piece.

HOBSON: But are you trying to showcase something that someone who's listening to the original version would not notice themselves?

O'RILEY: I think there are things about the music that I play that I think the piano is really good at illustrating. Mostly, the texture, I mean, the way that the piano has of having a different texture for each piece. Like when you listen to a great Robert Schumann song, the accompaniment is always so different. I mean, the harmonies are not, you know, revolutionary, but there's something very particular about the musical texture that's absolutely married to that particular piece. And so I think a lot of what I'm doing with these arrangements is trying to get all those eggs in one basket and also, you know, show what the piano can do.

HOBSON: Christopher O'Riley is host of NPR's classical music show FROM THE TOP. We'll have his complete list of music at Christopher, thanks so much.

O'RILEY: A pleasure.


HOBSON: And we're listening here to The Bad Plus version of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," blurring the lines between classical, jazz, rock and roll - all of it. We've got all of the songs from today's HERE AND NOW DJ Sessions at

HERE AND NOW is a production of NPR and WBUR Boston in association with the BBC World Service. I'm Jeremy Hobson.


I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.