It’s a Thursday night in a crowded steak house in Raleigh, and over the sounds of people laughing and talking, Stephen Anderson is playing a solo on the house piano.

Click to read photo caption. Photo by Paul Dagys; ©2008 Endeavors.

“It’s like, ‘Why do I do this?’” says Anderson, who paid his way through school by playing for audiences who seldom listened. “That guy’s on his cell phone, they’re speaking really loud over there, there’s ten other people getting drunk, and nobody’s listening.”

So during his college years Anderson stopped trying to compose the story lines of notes and chords he thought people wanted to hear. Instead he tried to strike a balance between familiar and innovative techniques by fusing styles and bending the rules.

That took a little encouragement. When he approached percussionist and friend Joel Fountain to record an album, Anderson at first wanted to play standards. But Fountain urged him to write his own songs. “There are hundreds of bands out there playing the same songs,” Fountain says. “I just felt like maybe the world didn’t need another one of those records, and he’s a great writer.”

Anderson released his newest album, Forget Not, in March of this year. The music is progressive, modern-style jazz that draws on classical techniques, reflecting Anderson’s training in both classical composition and jazz. “I’m trying to be innovative but still be aesthetically pleasing,” he says. So how did he do it?

He practiced and studied.

Anderson developed his style during graduate school at the University of North Texas, where he studied the staples of classical and jazz, competed to play in the top bands, and composed some of the songs that would end up on Forget Not. The program at Texas formed a geographical bubble of jazz interest that contrasted sharply with the laid-back country tunes on the local radio stations. Competition was fierce, and students had a lot of fervor for the progressive jazz style, known then to be ahead of its time. The musicians would get fired up over colleagues’ mistakes in rehearsals and concerts. “It became almost violent on the bandstand if you made a mistake,” Anderson says. Some of the songs on the album reflect the zeal and the avant-garde style encouraged in the program, while others, such as “Antithesis,” are meant to contrast with it.

He pondered.

When Anderson is about to write a new piece of music, he says it’s impossible for him to ignore what’s already been written. It’s a humbling process. “Who am I to say anything? There’s been so much said,” Anderson says. He studied every day for six months when he was about to take his qualifying exams in 2003. “I was living in the library and had all this music around me, just in awe of what’s been written,” he says. At times, it felt nearly impossible for him to find his own voice. “And then I felt kind of depressed for a few days, I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and thought, ‘Well, I’m going to draw on this. No one’s done George Crumb plus hip-hop. Then I could add my church background.’ And I run it all through my filter, and it comes out as something new.”

He wrote, played, and wrote.

If this sounds easy, it sometimes wasn’t. The song “Forget Not” took Anderson months to figure out. He was listening to a piece by twentieth-century composer Béla Bartók, a Hungarian who borrowed rhythms from his recordings of peasants in the field. Anderson knew he wanted to emulate those rhythms on the album, and he knew he wanted a unique combination of notes in the chords.

“I’d change it and change it,” he remembers. “I was trying to find a way to make the chords match the groove.” Anderson has insomnia, but he puts it in a positive light. “If things are going well, I wake up and hear music in my head,” he says. “I’ll go and I’ll try to write it down.”

He had a little help.

Anderson e-mailed the music and recordings to Fountain and string bassist Jeff Eckels — Anderson had played with Eckels at Texas and on Joel Fountain’s latest album. “I didn’t say much after that. I wanted to see what those guys could do,” he says. “Eckels creates all these melodies. He hears the countermelodies and where to put things.”

Fountain says the trio worked well together for Anderson’s album because they were going for the same things musically. “I felt like we were all kind of looking for that spark and for the music to touch us deeply,” Fountain remembers. “That’s how we connected. Maybe we didn’t always get it, but we were always trying to look for something special.”

Kelly Rae Chi was a student who formerly contributed to Endeavors.

Stephen Anderson is an assistant professor of jazz studies and composition in the College of Arts and Sciences. He received funding from UNC’s University Research Council and from the United Arts Council of Greater Greensboro Artist Hub. He has performed and recorded with the Lynn Seaton Trio and appears on two recordings with the trio for Nagel Heyer Records, Puttin’ On the Ritz (2005), and Ballads 2006 (compilation album). Anderson’s compositions have been performed by the West Point Military Academy Band, the North Carolina Jazz Repertory Orchestra, Lynn Seaton, and others. Forget Not was released in 2008 by Summit Records.