Interview: Ethan Iverson

Kevin Whitehead

By Kevin Whitehead

on 06.20.12 in Interviews

Ethan Iverson is a polymath: a jazz pianist equally comfortable playing Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” at a cozy club like Smalls and knocking out Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” on a theater stage with the Bad Plus, the hugely influential trio he co-leads with drummer Dave King and bassist Reid Anderson. These days, they mostly play original music, although lately they’ve been playing Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring on the road. Their new album Made Possible is due in September.

The pianist also writes about jazz in a clear, accessible way from an insider’s perspective; his blog Do the Math, where he also writes on classical music and crime fiction, is essential reading for jazzhounds. This year he’s also appeared on drummer Billy Hart’s lively lovely All Our Reasons, to which Ethan contributed three tunes.

Iverson and this writer became friends when our New York years overlapped two decades ago, not least because of our shared love of 1980s jazz. Invited to talk to eMusic about five records important to him, he zeroed in on that decade, suggesting I pick a few mutual favorites to talk about, drawn from an annotated list of select period music he’d put together for Do the Math.

Anything to say about the ’80s to get started?

I graduated from high school in 1991, and did the bulk of my early record collecting before then, back in Wisconsin — before I was broke in New York and could barely afford any. I may have bought all the records we’re talking about here on LP. I love ’80s jazz. All three of us in the Bad Plus are deeply informed by it. Before I knew jazz history or read the books, this was some of the music I was most excited about. Song X meant more to me than Ornette Coleman’s Atlantic records, in terms of my own development.

Song X surprised some people, because Ornette’s co-leader was Pat Metheny.

Pat first reached people through melodic pop jazz, easy listening in a good way. It’s hard to write a melody the average biped wants to groove along with. (If you think it’s easy, try it.) But one thing that helped develop that talent was his immersion in Ornette Coleman’s music. Ornette’s alto melodies are touched by purest love, genius, logic, hummability: everything you want from a melody. “Kathelin Grey” and “Mob Job,” those tunes are incredibly beautiful.

Yet the music can be incredibly dense.

You’ve got to admire the balls of it. Ornette’s gift for melody is second to none, but he also likes to rub up against it, like when he busts out his noise violin on “Mob Job.” Denardo Coleman plays a lot of electronic percussion, which can sound dated today. But on the next Bad Plus record, Dave King plays some, specifically inspired by what Denardo does here. I also have to mention Charlie Haden, who hooks those alto melodies to his chorale-like bass accompaniment: truly exquisite. Metheny and Keith Jarrett both played a lot of Ornette-type music with Charlie. He’s a huge part of the puzzle, and probably doesn’t get the Elvin Jones-level credit he deserves.

Another of your heroes worked with Ornette: Dewey Redman, who played on your first album, School Work, in 1993.

Dewey’s always been one of the great tenor saxophonists for me. That 1989 review you wrote in Down Beat of a trio gig he played with Mark Helias and Ralph Peterson whet my appetite for moving to New York. I can always recognize Dewey from one or two notes. He’s a sly fox — doesn’t beat you over the head with that Texas tenor sound like, say, Fathead Newman; he gives you the impression he doesn’t want to reveal it all right away. The Struggle Continues is one of his best records. The presence of Ed Blackwell on drums is crucial. On “Turn Over, Baby,” they both play that old-time and maybe-future music.

That must be the most lowdown blues in the ECM catalog.

Dewey played the blues in Texas, and Blackwell toured with Ray Charles. They were professionals in that style. It’s the reason they’re so soulful. Pianist Charles Eubanks and bassist Mark Helias are also great musicians, from a generation of players not informed by the conservative movement in jazz in the 1980s. (Post-Wynton, things became…more reducible.) You can hear it in how they play Charlie Parker’s “Dewey Square” — there’s a different vibration. I’ve always loved Helias’s playing. A great composer, he’s interested in playing with swinging drummers, AACM avant-garde types, whoever.

Great bass players, that’s our segue to Ron Carter’s Etudes, also recorded in 1982, with trumpeter Art Farmer, saxophonist Bill Evans and Ron’s old ally Tony Williams on drums. You’ve said it might be Carter’s best record. It is awfully good, even with that rubber band-y amplified bass sound.

You’re not alone in not liking that. The two bassists where I never objected to that sound were Ron and Buster Williams. Something about their beat and feel lets me accept it. With rhythm as good as Ron’s, he could play a washtub bass.

I haven’t heard all his records, but Etudes is definitely a jazz classic: very original, very strong. The arrangements and interplay, the way Ron and Tony play together, with understanding and love — it’s a very sophisticated album. But the tunes Ron and Tony wrote are very singable. Sometimes, walking down the street, I’ll start singing one. The back story I heard is complicated: apparently Ron wrote the music for a gig with other players who couldn’t make the recording; Wayne Shorter sent Bill Evans as his sub. It was recorded very fast, like in an hour and a half, guerilla-style, the way Ron likes. Art Farmer sounds so great on this record. Maybe he should have recorded without piano more often.

And you’re a piano player! Which brings us to our first selection by a pianist, Andrew Hill’s Shades, for trio, sometimes adding Clifford Jordan on tenor.

I got it in high school, and remember thinking, “Man, this is great jazz!”

You’ve said it’s “possibly Hill’s most conservative album.”

What do you say?

It’s certainly his most Monkish, with “Monk’s Glimpse,” his gloss on Monk’s version of “This Old Man” and Monk’s old drummer Ben Riley. Clifford Jordan reminds me of Charlie Rouse with Monk here. Every note he plays is fat and emphatic, and very precisely placed, really defining Andrew’s elusive melodies. There are some fine ones here.

That about sums it up. With Clifford or Rouse, you hear him play just a few notes, you know he’s the genuine article. No academy, no Real Book, no meta — it is what it is. Clifford heard it all as a continuum, could also play modal jazz, or free. He and Andrew come fromChicago, and knew the city’s experimental stuff, as well as blues and ballads.

Did Hill influence you as a pianist?

I hope so! A great influence: a very pure spirit, taking the road less traveled. Some players never stop inspiring you. I didn’t really know him, but met him enough to know his gracefulness, warmth, and determination to make strange music.

Which brings us to pianist Don Pullen’s New Beginnings [available as the last six track on disc two of his Capitol Vaults Jazz Series set], with Tony Williams and bassist Gary Peacock.

A great record! I’m not a Pullen expert, but to me, this is the one. As with Etudes and Shades, the compositions are so important. Don obviously has a lot of respect for melody; it’s almost like an Ahmad Jamal record in that way.

“Jana’s Delight” is very catchy, and there’s that great flamenco tune, “At the Café Centrale.”

Also that free-time “Reap the Whirlwind,” this clear avant-garde statement in the context of a melodic record: one tune where he lets the dogs out.

Andrew Hill gets his due these days, while Pullen seems less well-remembered than he should be. He had his own advanced techniques, like rolling his right hand up the keys, but some folks thought he just sounded like Cecil Taylor.

If you play atonal glisses and play a certain high number of notes per second, inevitably there will be some similarities. Cecil Taylor is incredible, an important part of the jazz tradition, but there are no pretty tunes on any Cecil record I ever heard. Pullen was always playing the blues, while Cecil is off in outer space.

Did Pullen influence your playing?

I’d like to go back and be more influenced by him.