The Bad Plus’ Reid Anderson mixes it up with strings and electronics in a long-delayed work premiering this week.
Reid Anderson, the Twin Cities-bred bassist of the jazz trio the Bad Plus, will appear twice this week in St. Paul, but he won’t be playing bass, jazz or with the Bad Plus. He’ll perform music no one has heard, in concerts that almost didn’t happen.
Anderson’s “The Rough Mixes” is an evening-length work for chamber ensemble, electronics and video, featuring musicians of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. Originally set last December as part of the SPCO’s Liquid Music series, the world premiere was rescheduled because of the orchestra’s lockout, with fingers crossed that the labor dispute would be over by the end of the 2012-13 season.
The gamble paid off, and Anderson had a few extra months to work on what he calls his “high-risk” project.
“As we speak, I’m madly trying to whirl this thing into being and into shape,” he said earlier this month from his home in Brooklyn.
Electronic music is Anderson’s “other life” outside the Bad Plus, his in-demand band with Twin Cities drummer Dave King and New York pianist Ethan Iverson that spends much of each year touring.
“I love the potential of what you can do with those kinds of sounds,” he said. “It’s still such new territory, and it’s something I find myself turning to when I choose to engage in music these days.”
The Copes connection
For “The Rough Mixes,” Anderson will be joined by SPCO violinists Steven Copes and Sunmi Chang, Minnesota Orchestra cellist Anthony Ross and percussionist Jeff Ballard, a member of pianist Brad Mehldau’s jazz trio. Brooklyn-based architect Cristina Guadalupe created the video and will be there to control it live.
“The video will be quite minimal and abstract,” Anderson said. “I wanted the piece to be an immersive experience.”
Copes, the SPCO’s concertmaster, met Anderson when they were students at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. They took different paths but have stayed in touch. It was Copes who first suggested to Kate Nordstrum, Liquid Music’s curator, that she contact Anderson.
“He had this intense classical training, and he’s just a very smart guy,” Copes said. “I knew he would do something interesting.”
Anderson is responsible for some of the Bad Plus’ most memorable tunes, including the achingly beautiful “Prehensile Dream” and “Silence Is the Question,” music full of classically Romantic longing.
Liquid Music is all about bending genres and crossing boundaries, so when he told Nordstrum, “I want to do something with electronic music and strings and video, I’ve never done it before, I don’t know how to do it, but that’s what I’d like to do,” she said, “That sounds like a great idea.”
“Kate’s my hero,” he said. “When someone places that kind of trust in you, it’s a big responsibility, and a big gift.”
Nordstrum said she took her cue from Copes: “Steve is a traditional classical musician, but he really respects Reid and thought a project with him would be cool. Reid’s work as a composer made Steve believe that he could write well for a chamber ensemble. … The heart of ‘The Rough Mixes’ is a collaboration between Reid and Steve.”
Ballard’s involvement also traces back to Copes.
“It wasn’t my initial intention to have drums,” Anderson said, “but Steve mentioned that [the SPCO musicians] really enjoyed playing with Jeff on the ‘Highway Rider’ project,” a work by Mehldau for jazz ensemble and chamber orchestra that had its world premiere with the SPCO in 2010.
Copes recalled, “We were all hypnotized by Ballard.”
When worlds collide
Projects that mix jazz and classical musicians can be challenging. Jazz musicians improvise; most classical musicians don’t. Often, the classical musicians end up with too little to do while the jazz musicians go on too long — at least, for those who have come to hear the classical musicians.
“This is not an uncommon experience when these worlds collide,” Anderson said. “I’m trying to strike a balance. One of my concerns is that the strings sound great and get to play at the level that they deserve to be. … I’m trying to make music that shines a light on everybody. That is the central consideration.
“Fundamentally, I’m a very practical composer. I like my music to be playable. I like people to feel they don’t have to make some big conceptual stretch to understand what’s happening and get fulfillment from playing the music. The core aesthetic hurdle might be that this music involves a certain amount of not listening to everybody.”
What can the audience expect? Those who have only seen Anderson with his big double bass — meaning anyone who has seen him before — will be surprised by what he brings to the SPCO Center.
“I’ll be on stage controlling various synthesizers and samplers and directing traffic,” he explained. “I will be an instrumentalist like everyone else, just playing the computer.”
Have a little faith.
“My music is very melodic,” he said. “I believe in melody.”