Ethan Iverson Is Hustling

Ethan Iverson Is Hustling

Pianist Ethan Iverson released his first album, School Work, in 1993, when he was 20. In about 1997, he started playing with bassist Reid Anderson, and at the turn of the millennium, they connected with drummer Dave King and formed the Bad Plus. That trio was one of the breakout jazz groups of the early 21st century, releasing 13 albums in 16 years and selling a surprising number of records along the way. They were a lot of listeners’ gateway into jazz, particularly because of their habit of arranging pop and rock songs like Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” for piano trio. But once the covers got people in the door, they heard tightly arranged, high-energy original compositions by all three members.

“You know, with the Bad Plus it was three peers who were very strong voices, and we were meeting in the middle,” Iverson says. “And I still believe that was innovative music, strictly in the sense that no one sounded like that before. And you can recognize us anytime. An older Bad Plus record where I’m playing piano on it, you know, it comes on, you know it’s the Bad Plus. It’s very distinctive. That was always my first agenda, since I was very young. Make music that was fresh.”

In between Bad Plus releases, Iverson put out a half dozen albums of his own and collaborated with jazz legends like drummers Billy Hart and Albert “Tootie” Heath and saxophonist Lee Konitz, playing in a more traditional style and interpreting jazz standards. He also ran a widely read blog, Do The Math, which featured his writing on jazz and crime fiction and a series of fascinating extended interviews with musicians and some critics. This eventually led him to contribute articles to The Nation, The New Yorker, and NPR.

In 2016, Iverson released The Purity Of The Turf, a trio album with bassist Ron Carter and drummer Nasheet Waits. The following year, he announced his departure from the Bad Plus. Subsequently, he’s released two albums on ECM (a live quartet disc, and a collection of duos with saxophonist Mark Turner) and an orchestral disc on Sunnyside. In 2021, he signed with Blue Note and made Every Note Is True with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jack DeJohnette.

Iverson has chosen to work with older masters of jazz for the same reason he interviews them — in order to learn as much as possible while they’re still around. Despite achieving commercial success with the Bad Plus, he knew that “I really need to learn how to play jazz. Of course, I was playing jazz, but at the same time, there was a lot of stuff I needed to work on. And so I immediately started trying to get close to Billy Hart, to Paul Motian, to Tootie Heath, to then eventually Ron Carter and then Jack DeJohnette.” But at the same time, he was trying to make them sound good in the context of his music — “to frame them in the best way I can.”

“Several people told me they thought Jack DeJohnette sounded amazing on ‘The Eternal Verities’ and the rest of that record. And I think it’s true. Like, I got some primo Jack DeJohnette…so the record’s a success as far as I’m concerned. You might think that these guys sound great on every record, but…I do think the leader has to have a certain kind of interest and compassion to sort of make it happen the best way.”

Now, he’s releasing Technically Acceptable, which features two different trios, each composed of players from his own generation, or even younger than himself. For most of the album, he’s backed by bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Kush Abadey, but on a few tracks, Simón Willson and Vinnie Sperrazza take over — and on one piece, a version of Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight,” there’s also a theremin solo by Rob Schwimmer. In addition to the Monk piece and a version of Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” the record includes eight new Iverson compositions and a 15-minute, fully composed piano sonata, the first such work to appear on a Blue Note album in that label’s entire 85-year history.

The Iverson-Morgan-Abadey trio first got together for a gig at the Jazz Gallery. After that, they went into the studio, but three months after the session, Iverson scrapped it all and called them back for a second attempt. “It wasn’t the way they played,” he says. “They were perfect. But I thought, I actually have something else to state here myself.”

Many of the pieces on Technically Acceptable are quite short, between two and three minutes, and Iverson admits that surprised him. “I was appalled at first. When I looked at the tracklist, I was like, ‘Wait a minute, this stuff is only two minutes long’…But I will say in my defense that I think all the tunes you can sit and listen to quite carefully and, sort of like you would listen to a pop song or something that’s produced. Like, they all have a strong narrative.”

That’s true; these are songs, not just heads intended to provide springboards for solos. And typically for Iverson, the melodies are strong and somewhat florid. There’s little of the cool reserve common in modern jazz. Some pieces, like “Victory Is Assured” (a phrase drawn from the writing of Iverson’s friend, the late jazz critic Stanley Crouch) and the title track, have a powerful, old-school swing reminiscent of players like Count Basie or Earl “Fatha” Hines. “The Way Things Are” is a gentle, romantic ballad with a slight country tinge; it sounds like something he wrote to perform at a friend’s wedding. Album opener “Conundrum” is a 90-second theme that could introduce a game show or a late-night talk show.

Although the music he writes for his solo records is very different from that he wrote in the Bad Plus, there’s a stylistic through-line in his approach to pop songs. “Killing Me Softly With His Song” is performed without condescension; he’s not winking. His version reminds me of the way Erroll Garner would perform pop songs of the 1960s with big, memorable melodies, delivering breathtaking improvisations that never wandered so far afield that the listener was left wondering how they got there. It also reminds me of Cecil Taylor’s performance of the standard “This Nearly Was Mine” on 1960’s The World Of Cecil Taylor; when Amiri Baraka criticized him for performing “midtown fluff,” Taylor responded, “Doesn’t that fool know that I recorded that tune because I like it?”

Iverson is one of a small group of jazz pianists — others include Jason Moran, Aaron Diehl, and Sullivan Fortner — interested in exploring jazz’s early history not as a retro exercise, but as a source of innovation and differentiation. The great 1960s pianists like McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea advanced the music to the point that one can speak of “pre-McCoy” and “post-McCoy.” But that’s not a style Iverson feels suits him, as a composer or a player. “At some point that becomes like, you just can’t find anything new to shake out of that box. So what’s left? Well, okay, what about what did they do in 1920? What’d they do in 1930? Is it still fresh? Turns out…there’s actually something fresh still there to be found.”

The 15-minute, three-movement piano sonata that closes Technically Acceptable is a fascinating fusion of Iverson’s background as a classical piano student and his interest in early modern jazz. It follows conventional sonata form, with an allegro to start, a slower second movement, and a rondo to finish. And it’s completely scored. But the actual melodic ideas he’s exploring in those three sections are quite clearly drawn from jazz; it’s possible to hear echoes of Gershwin, Ellington, and even Fats Waller in what he’s playing.

Composition comes easily to him, even larger pieces. “It’s been going very, very quickly,” he says. “I start hearing the tunes, I start writing them down, I start singing them, my own tunes as I’m walking around, for these formal compositions. And to me, that must mean I’m now a composer. And I like the tension of putting a fully notated piano sonata on Blue Note Records. That has definitely never been done before. So if nothing else, I’m satisfying one of my basic requirements, you know, to be sort of doing something new. And as my fifties into my dotage roll on, I suspect that I will be visible as a composer, perhaps almost as much as a performer.”

Of course, jazz is meant to be performed live, and Iverson will be taking the Morgan-Abadey rhythm section on the road in support of Technically Acceptable. “Thomas Morgan is a true genius and he’s incredibly in-demand, and I don’t know how much longer he’ll be playing with me because he’s a genuine superstar in the world of improvised music. And Kush is also, you know, he’s a regular in the Melissa Aldana Quartet, which is seeming to be one of the busiest groups in jazz. So I can’t really know if this is going to be a working trio for a long time. But what’s true is I have this nice record with them. We’re playing the Vanguard and we’re doing two back-to-back European tours.”

Very few people can make a living just as a jazz pianist, of course. Iverson teaches at New England Conservatory (where the Bad Plus are not as big a part of students’ listening diet as one might assume; he says “everything is ephemeral”) and works regularly with choreographer Mark Morris, having scored dance pieces based on the music of the Beatles and Burt Bacharach. And his website Do The Math has become an email newsletter, Transitional Technology, which has a paid subscription tier. “Vinnie Sperrazza [who also writes a newsletter] and I joke it’s our hustle. Like, everyone’s gotta have a hustle. And if you’re asking me, like, what to say to the jazz kids or whatever, I would say, everybody has a hustle.”

TAKE 10

10

Jiro Inagaki & His Soul Media - "The Ground For Peace"

The BBE label’s J Jazz compilations, which gather rare tracks from Japanese jazz albums from the 1960s to the early ’80s, are an amazing treasure trove. I buy every volume as soon as they’re released, and they get a lot of play in my apartment. In the past, they’ve covered a wide range, from private press free blowouts to red-hot jazz-funk. The latest entry in the series focuses on the output of one label, Nippon Columbia, but is just as expansive. There are groups that combine hard bop with traditional instruments, some truly adventurous compositions, and then there’s hard-charging stuff like Jiro Inagaki’s “The Ground For Peace,” which is a blend of funk, soul and psychedelic rock, and even gets into Afrobeat territory when the tenor saxophonist is in full flight. (From J Jazz Vol. 4: Deep Modern Jazz From Japan – Nippon Columbia 1968-1981, out now via BBE.)

09

Kirsten Edkins - "The Goose"

Kirsten Edkins is a Los Angeles-based tenor saxophonist who’s been working since she was a teenager. She released her debut album, Art And Soul, in 2015; I stumbled across, this, her second album, while idly trawling Bandcamp. On Shapes & Sound, she’s leading a quintet with Lemar Guillary on trombone, Gerald Clayton on piano, Ahmet Turkmenoglu on bass, and Chris Wabich on drums. It’s a straightahead hard bop record, with the bluesy grooves and thoughtful interplay between the horns that one would expect from a classic Blue Note release of the mid ’60s. What’s cool about Edkins, though, is that she frequently surprises you with phrases that seem to go against the grain of the music without sounding disruptive for the sake of disruption. That quality is particularly noticeable on “The Goose,” a kind of stop-start melody that leaves plenty of space for saxophone soliloquies, especially since Guillary sits this one out. (From Shapes & Sound, out now via Cohearent.)

08

Dave Stryker - “Cold Duck Time"

Guitarist Dave Stryker has a long-standing trio with organist Jared Gold and drummer McClenty Hunter. They’ve frequently brought in guests, like vibraphonists Stefon Harris and Steve Nelson, saxophonist Walter Smith III, and others over the course of their 15 years together. In 2015, they made an entire album of Stanley Turrentine tunes, with a different saxophonist on each track, including Chris Potter, Houston Person, Jimmy Heath, Javon Jackson, and Eric Alexander. On this album, he and his trio are joined by saxophonist Bob Mintzer (who also played on that Turrentine record). In case you hadn’t figured it out yet, Stryker’s music is very much in a hard-grooving soul jazz vein, and “Cold Duck Time” is them doing what they do best. It’s a simple, uptempo blues groove that gives everyone plenty of room to stretch out and blow fire. (From Groove Street, out now via Label.)

07

Alex Hitchcock - "Cakeism"

This album really should have been called Dream Bands, because it’s a three-disc set with a different group featured on each volume. All the material was written specifically for the band that performs it, too. “Cakeism” comes from the first disc, and features Hitchcock on tenor sax, Mark Kavuma on trumpet, Kit Downes on piano, Rob Luft on guitar, Rio Kai on bass, and Jamie Murray on drums. It’s a hard, anthemic piece that in its first half, showcases Downes and Luft, each of whom are working in a modern jazz-rock (meaning jazz with a rock-like sense of dynamics and catharsis) style; Luft’s playing in particular is clearly descended from Kurt Rosenwinkel, but also demonstrates a willingness to slip sideways just enough to be fascinating. When Hitchcock begins to solo at around the halfway mark of the piece, he’s got a hoarse, scraping sound that pushes the intensity level up quite high; Murray’s backbeat almost feels like an attempt to keep up with him, rather than the other way around. (From Dream Band: Live In London, out now via Whirlwind Recordings.)

06

Tetragone - "Shadow Of Blake"

A tetragon is a four-sided geometric figure; tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson released an album by that name in 1968, featuring two different quartets. Tetragone (the European spelling) is a new French quartet featuring Nicolas Leneveu on tenor sax, Jérémy Bruger on piano, Thibault Renou on bass, and Jean Luc Mondélice on drums. They’re relatively young, but they’ve been around for a while — Renou released an album in 2015, Maïsha Suite, performed by Ensemble Bibenduum, a 17-member big band that included everyone here except Mondélice. Their self-titled debut album, recorded in January 2023, features 11 original compositions: four by the saxophonist, three each by the pianist and bassist, and one by the drummer. They’re all straightforward hard bop tunes, and Leneveu reminds me of Henderson; on the opening “Shadow of Blake,” which he wrote, his lines come out like he’s sneaking up on the microphone. Behind him, the other three set up a light, swinging groove; Mondélice in particular plays jazz like it’s dance music, Bruger is a somewhat sparse accompanist who comes leaping out when the spotlight’s open, and Renou can be an anchor or an engine, depending on the needs of the moment. (From Tetragone, out now via Petit Label.)

05

Rich Halley - "Angular Logic"

Tenor saxophonist Rich Halley is based in Portland, Oregon and has been making music since the early ’80s. I first heard him in the early 2000s, when I stumbled across his 2001 trio album Coyotes In The City, 2002’s Objects, and 2003’s The Blue Rims. For many years, he’s done most of his work with a group of local peers, including bassist Clyde Reed and his son, drummer Carson Halley. But in 2019, he came to the East Coast and hooked up with Matthew Shipp’s trio with bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Newman Taylor Baker. They recorded two albums back to back — 2019’s Terra Incognita and 2020’s The Shape Of Things — and Fire Within is the third volume in the series. Halley starts “Angular Logic” solo, but Shipp is recognizable the second he comes in. Their voices mesh very well together — Halley avoids the squealing harmonics of Shipp’s former boss, David S. Ware, giving the music a bluesier feel well suited to Baker’s swinging beat, but the piano has that heavy darkness that gives the whole piece old-school free jazz gravitas. (From Fire Within, out now via Pine Eagle.)

04

Keyon Harrold - "Don't Lie"

Trumpeter Keyon Harrold hasn’t put an album out since 2017’s The Mugician. That record was a brilliant, head-spinning mix of jazz, hip-hop, rock, and R&B, packed with guests like Robert Glasper, Georgia Anne Muldrow, Big K.R.I.T., Pharoahe Monch, and Gary Clark Jr., and his long-awaited follow-up, Foreverland, is similar in spirit but different in mood. The cast of players this time includes guitarists Nir Felder, Randy Runyon and Justus West; keyboardists Greg Phillinganes, BIGYUKI, Shedrick Mitchell and Jahari Stampley; bassists Burniss “Boom” Travis and Brandon Owens; drummers Chris Dave and Marcus Gilmore; and Jahi Sundance on turntables, and the music is softer, cloudier… if The Mugician felt like a Soulquarian hip-hop project, Foreverland is closer to PM Dawn (though Common does appear). The first single, “Don’t Lie,” came out last summer, and features vocalist Malaya. Harrold’s muted trumpet has a piercing, heartfelt quality, and the synths waft around like clouds, but as the track goes on and Malaya’s heartbroken lament gains strength, the energy level rises, he switches to open horn, and a surprising amount of percussion bubbles up, from what sounds like plastic buckets to various other rattles and smacks. If you’re a fan of what Chief Adjuah (fka Christian Scott) was doing on albums like Stretch Music, The Centennial Trilogy, and Ancestral Recall, you should absolutely be listening to Keyon Harrold. (From Foreverland, out now via Concord.)

03

Muriel Grossmann - "Mother Of All"

Spiritual jazz saxophonist Muriel Grossmann has been making her music 100% on her own terms for over 15 years, releasing 13 albums to date beginning with 2008’s Quartet. And although Devotion is coming out via Jack White’s Third Man label, it’s pure Grossmann. It’s a 90-minute double disc that kicks off with a nearly 22-minute track. The ensemble includes longtime collaborator Radomir Milojkovic on guitar, Abel Boquera on Hammond B3 organ, and Uros Stamenkovic on drums. Grossmann herself plays tenor, alto and soprano saxes, flute, percussion, tambura, upright bass, kalimba, and harmonium. That range of instruments gives a hint as to what makes her music special — she overdubs whatever she thinks a track needs, rarely settling for a bare-bones band performance. This set closes with “Mother Of All,” a lengthy, post-Coltrane jam featuring plenty of psychedelic guitar and organ in the mode of the 1973 Carlos Santana/John McLaughlin collaboration Love Devotion Surrender (which featured Larry Young at the keyboard). (From Devotion, out now via Third Man.)

02

Aaron Parks Little Big - "Sports"

Pianist Aaron Parks has been on my radar since 2008, when he was briefly signed to Blue Note and I interviewed him for Jazziz. (That one Blue Note album, Invisible Cinema, is streaming, and well worth your time.) He’s done a lot of great work since — a solo album and a trio disc for ECM; two albums with the quartet James Farm, featuring saxophonist Joshua Redman, bassist Matt Penman, and drummer Eric Harland; and two recent trio dates with Harland and bassist Matt Brewer. A few years ago, he formed a great band called Little Big with guitarist Greg Tuohey, bassist David Ginyard Jr., and drummer Tommy Crane. They’ve made two studio albums to date, and Parks has just self-released a live Little Big album, Live in Berlin, which serves to introduce new drummer Jongkuk Kim. The music was recorded using the Voice Memo function on his iPhone, but it sounds great. “Sports” is a new tune not on either of the band’s albums, written by Tuohey, and they dive into it with gusto. By the time it ends, you’ll be humming the main melody, which has a hookiness reminiscent of Keith Jarrett’s mid ’70s American Quartet. (From Live In Berlin, out now via Aaron Parks.)

01

Mary Halvorson - "The Gate"

Guitarist Mary Halvorson rarely keeps the exact same band together from one album to the next. She’ll add a member or two, or make some other change. In 2022, she released two albums, Amaryllis and Belladonna. The former was written for and performed by a group comprising trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, trombonist Jacob Garchik, vibraphonist Patricia Brennan, bassist Nick Dunston, and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, while the latter paired Halvorson with the Mivos string quartet. (They also played on three tracks from Amaryllis.) Well, Cloudward features the Amaryllis ensemble, which is apparently a full-on band now. “The Gate” is a perfect album opener; it begins with a gentle unison melody played by all the front-line instruments (horns, vibes, guitar), after which Dunston and Fujiwara set up a lightly swinging groove and the melody continues, becoming more elaborate and surging up and down like a tide. Garchik is the primary soloist, but Brennan’s vibes, which are manipulated with pedals until they become a kind of dubby shimmer like a heat mirage, are an equally strong voice. Halvorson tends to stay in the middle of the music, offering surprising accents rather than leaping out for a splashy solo. (From Cloudward, out 1/19 via Nonesuch.)

OUTWARD BOUND

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