Reid Anderson Takes On Stravinsky

Reid Anderson and the Bad Plus tackle one of the 20th Century's greatest composers.


REID ANDERSON HAS NEVER BEEN ONE TO BACK AWAY from a musical challenge. In fact, his entire career has been based on setting the bar so high that he is forced to evolve his playing to rise to the occasion time and time again. That seems to be at the core of his jazz trio the Bad Plus. Commanding the upright bass in a piano, drums, and bass outfit, Anderson often finds himself holding down the foundation while also having to extend himself to cover melodic and harmonic ranges—and all while improvising and soloing through uncharted terrain.

After forming in Minnesota in 2000 and moving to New York, the trio gained immediate recognition for bridging the gap between jazz and popular music by infusing odd time signatures, intricate phrasings, and unexpected twists into the music of artists such as Pink Floyd, Nirvana, Rush, and David Bowie. More impressive yet is their original material, which somehow dives so deep into the inner workings of conceptual jazz that it emerges from the other side as palatable hits. So, given their natural ambition, it came as no surprise that when Duke University commissioned them as their artists in residence in 2011, they decided to tackle the immensely difficult classical piece The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky.

From left: pianist Ethan Iverson, Reid Anderson, and drummer David King. The end result is a masterful reinterpretation where Anderson’s bass work takes command, leading drummer Dave King and pianist Ethan Iverson through the difficult and seldom-repeating charts while infusing distinct Bad Plus nuances into it. Anderson once again challenged himself by taking on roles that far exceed the bass, as his fleet finger work often mimics the melody of the horns and the ominous undertones of the string sections. And while he is known for creating tension with space, Anderson keeps his fingers continuously moving through the rigorous 11 movements during the Bad Plus’ performances of the composition.

While Anderson and company are still touring to support The Rite of Spring, they are beginning to move on to their next project, which is their ninth studio album of original material. Anderson’s booming, natural tone sonically drives the new batch of songs, as his creative lines and unorthodox improvisation will keep listeners guessing what’s coming next. But often, not even Anderson quite knows what’s next. And that’s exactly the way he prefers it.

How did you guys first come up with the idea to tackle The Rite of Spring?

Duke University does some great commissioning of jazz musicians, and that has enabled us to do larger-scale works that wouldn’t usually be possible for us. It was probably because of our version of [Stravinsky’s] Apollo that we did previously, and a few other classical compositions that we’d done in the past. The idea was actually tossed out by another party for us to do The Rite of Spring, and it just made a lot of sense. It was incredibly intimidating because it’s a tremendous amount of work, but in the end it was the definitely sexiest idea.

How did you approach this work from a bass standpoint?

I didn’t approach it focusing on the bass part from the score. We’re a trio of just piano, bass, and drums, so we had to conceive a way to fill out the entire score and cover its full spectrum. For me, the important part was to figure out which components I could cover with the bass. So, sometimes I was playing a French horn part or a bassoon section. I had to find the places where we could convey the piece more than figuring out what the specific bass part was for that section from an orchestration standpoint.

How was this different from the pieces you’d covered in the past?

With The Rite of Spring it was all about the details. Our intentions were to really play it as it is meant to be played. In the past when we do our own versions of other people’s music, we have some freedom to play around, especially if we’re doing something like a Nirvana tune. We improvise a little within the framework. But with Rite of Spring we didn’t feel that we could do that and be true to it. The notes and the score and its interworkings are all so crucial, so it was a matter of paying attention to all of those details.

What was the recording process like?

We went into the studio and played it all together and did it all in record time. I think it took us about four hours total to track the whole thing. We had two days, so the first day we went in there and got the sounds, and then the next day we just went in and hit it.

What is your typical studio setup?

I send a direct signal through a high-quality direct box. I usually use a Demeter Tube DI. I also mic my bass as well to get another signal to add on top of it. I don’t have a particular miking method that I do every time. I set it up with the engineer, and we see what the best sounds are that we can come up with. It differs with every studio session, but I feel it’s best to adapt to what is available at the time.

How has your playing progressed?

I hope that I’ve become more of myself and have more confidence in my musical identity. In the early days there was always that voice that said, “It would be better if you sounded more like Charlie Haden.” As all of us mature, we accept our own voice more and more, so hopefully that comes through in my playing.

Has your technique changed over the years?

It has stayed the same for the most part. With my left hand I try to have a solid technique in terms of how my hands are always working together to get the best sound and get the best intonation. I try to play in a way that is relaxed and in a way that is responsive to my instrument and the environment we’re playing in. It’s not something I’m conscious of anymore, really; it’s more so just a function of what I do as a player.

What is your ideal upright bass tone?

I want it to sound as natural as possible. We do have to amplify through a direct signal, which is fine. But I like that not to be an obvious part of the sound. The more acoustic it sounds, the better it is. One thing you get from the DI is that you can accentuate the lower frequencies more. The way that you hear your sounds impacts how you translate it as well. Everyone hears things differently, and you try to manifest what you’re hearing.

You often borrow basses for shows when you’re out on tour.

Yes, it’s bass du jour. I just don’t fly with my bass anymore. I did it for a good ten years, and fought the good fight, but it’s just not possible anymore. It’s so stressful having to fight with someone at the airport every trip, and my bass got destroyed a couple of times, too. Occasionally I’ll be faced with an unplayable instrument. I’m not overly picky, and all that I ask for is that it’s playable. Sometimes you don’t have that luxury, and that can be frustrating.

What’s going on in your head when the Bad Plus is onstage?

We’re all constantly responding to each other every given moment. There isn’t much of a defined role in the band for each of us. We can all step in and pull the rug out from each other at any given time, or take over a lead or supportive role. It isn’t a typical situation where I’m the bassist so I just have to do the bass player parts; we’re all listening intensely and are trying to have a creative response to what’s happening. At the same time, I’m the bass player and I love the role of the bass, so I’m not trying to not play that role. I guess I’m trying to fulfill that role while finding ways to respond and shape the music that is outside of what the traditional role would be.

What excites you about improvisation?

I like the mystery of it. Improvisation can get you to some serious places in a way that written music can’t. I like the spontaneity and the responsibility of it, too. It’s not an intellectual exercise, so you have to be emotionally engaged and not hung up on the technicalities of what you’re doing.

When did you first begin playing the bass?

I started playing the acoustic bass when I was a senior in high school. I wanted to play jazz and I had been playing electric bass, and I called up a local bass teacher in Minneapolis because I wanted to take lessons, and he told me to get an upright if I wanted to play jazz. So that kind of started me off. But luckily it came pretty naturally to me.

When was the period of greatest growth for you as a player?

There have been a couple. I was in the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, which is a strictly classical music conservatory, and that was an important part in my development. Just playing my instrument and thinking about how I really wanted to play. And then of course moving to New York was a big step. When you come here you really have to hit it, because you’re surrounded by so many other great musicians who are here to be the best that they can be.

What did you learn once you entered the gigging scene?

You have to really find yourself as a musician. You have to think about what you want from music and what kind of music you ultimately want to play. For me it’s not about being the guy who gets hired for any gig. It became very clear to me that I wanted to play a certain kind of music, and I wanted to play it my way, and that was an important thing for me to realize. I wouldn’t be happy getting calls to fulfill a role. I want to play with people who want to work together for the sound I create and the way I play.



The Bad Plus, The Rite of Spring [Sony Music, 2014]


Basses 1930s Juzek Czech upright bass
Pickup Fishman Full Circle upright pickup
Strings Gamut gut strings on D and G, Thomastik Spirocore Light strings on E and A


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