It’s not often that a university can bring in an established group like The Bad Plus to work with its graduate students. But, that’s exactly what Duke, helped by a grant from the Council for the Arts, was able to do. The Bad Plus, composed of bassist Reid Anderson, pianist Ethan Iverson and drummer Dave King, are known widely for their mix of jazz, pop-music covers and experimental music. Unlike most residencies, The Bad Plus’, which started in fall 2010, included sessions where they performed and recorded music written by Duke graduate students in Music Composition. The Bad Plus also used their residency to premiere ‘On Sacred Ground: Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring,’ a work that Duke Performances commissioned and developed.

Before the recording sessions, students had prepared full-fledged compositions, often with little room for improvisation. But when the students met with The Bad Plus, the trio wanted more flexibility with the pieces. The group ended up using the students’ compositions as a jumping-off point, picking and choosing from the material to make pieces that were truly collaborative. For Kenneth David Stewart, one of the graduate students, the experience was an exhilarating challenge. He likened writing for The Bad Plus to “creating a framework for them to improvise within.” Another composer, Dan Ruccia, described the sessions as a way for him to “get the ideas from my head to their heads to the instruments.” The composers sometimes had to compromise more than they had expected, though, in order to get their compositions in a form with which the visiting artists were comfortable.

In the end, The Bad Plus “took complete ownership of the student pieces,” said Vice Provost for the Arts Scott Lindroth.

The four graduate composers created four sylistically unique pieces that only sound alike because of the instruments and style of The Bad Plus. When Jamie Keesecker recorded “What’s Your Name and Number, Norma K.?” he took alternating sections of the material he had prepared for The Bad Plus and otherwise let the group riff off Keesecker’s soft/loud piano. Stewart’s piece “Thetastate,” which remixes a phone conversation he had with a psychic, is intentionally disorienting and led Stewart to question the process and starting point of compositions.

“It was a gamechanger for me,” Stewart said. “[Working with The Bad Plus] let me shine a new light on myself and the way I look at the act of composing.”

Ruccia describes his piece “Floes” as a sea of “free-floating melodic chunks.” Influenced by Morton Feldman and infused with 1970s Miles Davis, the piece examines the life cycle of composition. Alex Kotch worked with drummer Dave King to create polyrhythmic sounds in place of his typical electro-acoustic dance beats to develop something more comfortable for The Bad Plus to work with.

After their successful residency, Duke Performances will bring The Bad Plus back to perform two shows at Motorco this coming Friday and Saturday. The recordings of the graduate students’ compositions were released Monday to coincide with the group’s return, and will be available online through Duke’s Music Department until November 1.

Director of Duke Performances Aaron Greenwald explained that he is always seeking substantive opportunities for collaboration with academic departments on campus. Ultimately, Greenwald said, the goal is to facilitate meaningful interaction between artists, Duke students and the Durham community. Lindroth mentioned that The Wet Ink Ensemble, which has worked with Duke graduate composition students in a similar capacity, is set to return this academic year, hopefully in a collaboration with the MFA program in Experimental and Documentary Arts.

Duke Performances presents The Bad Plus at Motorco Music Hall this Friday and Saturday at 9 p.m. Tickets are $10 for Duke students. You can listen to the results of this collaborative work here: http://music.duke.edu/news/2012/09/10/tbp-recordings.