Believing in the process

Stephen Anderson says jazz music is his life.

In his office in UNC’s Kenan Music Building, Anderson reaches into a drawer to pull out a giant notebook. He opens it up, flips through the large pages, and sighs.

“This is my other life,” he says.

The notebook contains Dysfunctional, his concerto for piano and orchestra. Anderson leads a double life—that of jazz musician and classical composer. He embodies the two roles distinctly, but on occasion, one creative process influences the other.

The latest album from the Stephen Anderson Trio, Believe, is about that process. And the story behind this particular jazz album starts with the concerto Anderson is holding.

Dysfunctional premiered to a packed house in UNC’s Memorial Hall on April 13, 2010. It received a Barlow Endowment composer award and numerous positive accolades. Then Anderson spent months sending the concerto to conductors all over the country in hopes that it would be picked up by a professional orchestra.

“In spite of what everyone said, it got no performances,” Anderson says. “I was just so frustrated.”

Dysfunctional has never been performed again. It remains in his desk drawer.

“Why do I do this?” he kept asking himself. Anderson typically scribbles down ideas for musical pieces on a daily basis, but he suddenly found he couldn’t write. For seven months, he didn’t write any music—classical or jazz.

Sometimes things that aren’t related to music work as the best inspiration. When he isn’t composing, Anderson reads. He travels to Butner once a month to volunteer at a federal prison. He devotes time to his spiritual life and his family.

While Anderson felt frustrated and creatively stumped, his musical world kept spinning. Conductor Evan Feldman commissioned Anderson to write a piece for the UNC Wind Ensemble in 2011. Anderson was excited about the commission but found his writing was still blocked. He tried to sketch out the piece five different times. He trashed the first four attempts. The fifth came out right.

“You can’t predict inspiration,” he says. “Notes will pop into my head when I’m making the bed or taking a shower.”

The right opening notes for that piece finally came to him while he was walking across campus. He went straight to the piano and started composing what would become Edge. From that point on, writing music came naturally again. He decided it was time to start work on the third album for the Stephen Anderson Trio.

As he started putting together songs for Believe, Anderson posed the question: “How can we make this one different? What have we already done? How can we make this one a little special?”

One way was to expand the trio slightly. He reached out to Joel Frahm, a renowned saxophone player Anderson had met a couple years back at the Carolina Jazz Festival. Frahm was happy to join as a special guest.

So how does Anderson describe this album?

“It’s just a lot of fast, energetic, crazy jazz,” he says.

The first number on the album, titled “Pig Pickin’,” is a tribute to one of the first social gatherings Anderson ever attended in North Carolina (originally from Texas, Anderson moved to Chapel Hill in 2006). True to its title, “Pig Pickin’” is a fun, relaxed tune with just a hint of country twang.

Like any good jazz record, Believe also includes a dose of improvisation. “Quiet Lady” is the only track on the album not written by Anderson (it’s by Thad Jones) and Anderson thought it would be best to adopt the simple framework of the piece and leave the rest up for interpretation.

“We had no plan for that tune until we started playing,” he says.

Anderson says he is happy with the outcome of the album and thankful for the lessons he learned in its creation, especially those of perseverance and faith in the artistic process.

Believe is about believing in the process—believing that it’ll happen,” he says. “You just have to work at it.”

The Stephen Anderson Trio includes Stephen Anderson (piano), Jeffry Eckels (bass), and Ross Pederson (drums). Joel Frahm appears on Believe as a special guest (saxophone).
[Story by Mary Lide Parker, Endeavors magazine]