Shortly after premiering On Sacred Ground: Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring at Duke Performances in March of 2011, the members of jazz trio the Bad Plus—pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson, and drummer Dave King—spent a day in Durham’s Sound Pure Studios recording compositions written for them by four Duke doctoral students: Dan Ruccia, Kenneth David Stewart, Jamie Keesecker, and Alex Kotch. The pieces had developed over several face-to-face sessions—a markedly collaborative composer-performer relationship—during a Bad Plus residency coordinated by Duke Performances and the Vice Provost for the Arts and spearheaded by John Supko.
We recently met up with three of the Duke composers at Durham restaurant the Federal—Kotch was unable to join us—to learn a little more about their pieces and what they gleaned from the process, now that the recordings are temporarily streaming at the Duke Music website as well as at the bottom of this post. The Bad Plus returns to Duke Performances, new album in tow, for a pair of dates at Motorco this weekend; visit the dP website for tickets and more information.
Dan Ruccia on Floes:
The idea that I started with was trying to guide improvisation—finding a way to write music for improvisers that had my signature on it. The piece is in two parts. The first is this really broad, spacious, sonorous melody in quasi-improvised variations. It’s a little more through-composed than the second part, which has these big open chords inspired equally by Morton Feldman and Tristan Perich, this young composer whose piece for vibraphone and 1-bit electronics we heard around the time I started writing. It was using these really open sonorities. The harmonies were very simple, but the way it dealt with space and time, I found really interesting.
So the second half of my piece grows out of that but takes a totally different direction, based in early- to mid-‘70s Miles Davis: heavy fusion, almost a rock beat, with similar sonorous harmonies in the piano but the rhythm section really sitting in the groove. The two halves are connected by the harmonies and the space the piano is occupying, and by little bits of melody that relate to each other. By the end, you get back to material from the beginning.
Ken Stewart on Thetastate:
I grappled with how to encompass on a piece of paper, with a couple of symbols and some text, this collaborative relationship. I decided to create a kind of playing-field-leveler in the form of a fixed electronic track in addition to the band. The way that I generated it was by tapping a phone call that I had with a psychic at a call-in line. I called the psychic and laid out this dramatic scenario: “I’m a composer and I have this deadline. I understand the form of the work but I’m having trouble seeing the details.” We discussed strategies of creativity, ways of trying to move material. I transformed this conversation into a track that the Bad Plus listened to as they approached the written material. The timeline is constructed around it.
I tried to take the idea of a psychic and let that embody the whole creative relationship of, “Who really knows?” The piece’s form was designed by me and harmonic materials were provided, but at the same time, they gave an environment in which the Bad Plus could improvise; react to a sentence like “We cannot know God.” What I like to tell people is that my piece isn’t jazz, but it contains jazz. The fixed media track is the shelf, with maybe a couple items, but they provided the actual books.
Jamie Keesecker on What’s Your Name and Number, Norma K.?:
We knew going into this opportunity that it was going to be a truly collaborative process, unlike most residencies, where you write the music, print it out, and hand it off. The big problem was, how do you include the improvisation aspect? I was cautious of treating them too strictly like a jazz group, and my first attempt at tackling that problem did not pan out at all. It had all these Lutosławski-like instructions. Then I changed my piece drastically and made it basically a series of jazz heads: the same material, but a little bit messed with so it’s never quite the same as the last time you heard it. And then I just wanted them to improvise freely between those sections. By the time the recording session rolled around, they had decided that with each successive group improvisation, they would push it a little bit further, and the studio was just magic. We were all blown away. It sort of brings into question, for me, the whole nature of our more traditional method of working, treating performers as merely interpreters that have very limited say.
Recordings with Reid Anderson, Ethan Iverson, and Dave King of The Bad Plus by Duke Music Department