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Ethan Iverson Returns to Basics and Looks Toward the Future on Blue Note Debut

In this exclusive Q&A, the pianist discusses (among other topics) Don Was, Ellen Raskin, Simon Rattle, Tootie Heath, social dances, and "To Sir, With Love"

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Ethan Iverson (photo: Keith Major)
Ethan Iverson (photo: Keith Major)

Wisconsin-born and proud: For all of the avant-everything complexity Ethan Iverson has applied to his solo projects or the sounds he created in his role as co-founder of the Bad Plus, there has always been something workmanlike, in a good way, about the music that he makes. 

It could be in the pop references of his Bad work with bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King (whose company Iverson left in 2017), in his sideman’s groove with Albert “Tootie” Heath across three albums (for the SmallsLIVE and Sunnyside labels), or in his duo and quartet excursions for ECM (Temporary Kings with Mark Turner, Common Practice with Tom Harrell, Ben Street, and Eric McPherson)—the word “basic” keeps coming to mind.

That same sense of simplicity, of a solid framework stripped of needless ornament, is at the heart and soul of Every Note Is True, Iverson’s new album with an old friend, bassist Larry Grenadier, and legendary drummer Jack DeJohnette. Every Note Is True is also the pianist/composer’s debut recording for the Blue Note label—a signing that tickles Iverson to no end, judging from the interview below.

Iverson’s dexterous playing and deft compositional skills are bladelike and razor-sharp throughout the new recording, as he swings against the pulse of Grenadier and DeJohnette on “Goodness Knows” or digs into the raw blues of “At the Bells and Motley.” (On that subject he notes, “Blues is the secret sauce to all great jazz.”)

With a rhythm section like this, you don’t need to bring an armful of material or complex rules. The more basic the sketch, the more room to stretch. In that way, Iverson has made Every Note Is True worthy of the grand tradition of Blue Note’s first golden period of the 1950s and ’60s, of “memorable songs with not too many notes on the page.”

All that and a literary angle too, as Iverson dedicates one song to childhood hero—and fellow cheesehead—Ellen Raskin and pairs with his wife, writer Sarah Deming, for “The More It Changes,” which features a 44-voice virtual choir of family friends, as well as Iverson’s own warbly vocals. There’s joy and playfulness to spare.

JT: During the pandemic, I know I had more of a chance to dig into music, books, and films than ever before. Through the two years of COVID, how has your level of appreciating music changed?

ETHAN IVERSON: You’re right that it has been a time for study. Getting off the road helped, especially when you consider that I had been touring, pretty consistently, for a quarter of a century. That’s a privilege, and I’m not over it, but you keep working because there’s a machine behind it all. To have that all stop suddenly? After being depressed for several days, I realized that it was time to study, practice, and listen. It was also a time where I could eat my wife’s wonderful cooking daily, for the first time in over a decade of marriage … I did more composing and practicing than writing [prose, which he’s done for various outlets, including this magazine, and his own Do the Math blog —Ed.] during the pandemic. Usually, I did the writing on tour—on the bus or on the plane or in the hotel room between gigs. It was a hobby, something to do on the road if there wasn’t a piano around. Having done all that scribbling all those years, I can do it faster, and the prose is smoother. I’ll never be a great prose stylist, but I am better.

Any great discoveries in quarantine? I fell into the catalog of [late drummer/vocalist] Dottie Dodgion’s catalog pretty hard after reading her book [The Lady Swings: Memoirs of a Jazz Drummer] and didn’t come up for air until I had exhausted the lot.

After Sidney Poitier died, I decided to watch To Sir, With Love, which somehow I’d never seen. I thought the [title] song was incredible, a leitmotif of the film. I was just sobbing listening. It’s really one of the greatest songs that I’ve ever heard. Would I feel that way without the movie? I don’t know. But I take that to be one of my pop references. It’s not visible in the world as yet, but I became obsessed with composition. I wrote eight sonatas for instruments plus piano. There was a premiere of a piece for eight horns and a rhythm section in Italy. As far as ways of working go, I now have a certain confidence toward getting formal compositions done. 

You’ve worked with choreographer Mark Morris’ dance troupe and with drummers as diverse as Tootie Heath, Billy Hart, and now Jack DeJohnette. How has that influenced your approach to rhythm over the last decade?

I really keep trying to learn about rhythm. I’ve had a lot of experience playing for dance, not only with Mark, but with a tango band I was in throughout my twenties that played for social dances. I think all jazz musicians coming up should play for social dances. It’s a puzzle piece that went into the sound of Miles, Coltrane, and Monk. All of those modern jazz greats had social dance in their background.

I spoke with Jon Batiste about that very thing not so long ago, the importance of the social dance.

Unlike Jon, however, I cannot dance [laughs]. Thinking about those drummers you mentioned, that is rhythm within the jazz tradition. Swing. I keep on trying to get comfortable with that, so that I can sit next to those players, and deal. Get better.

How so?

The first time I played with Tootie Heath, I was on the brink of utter depression because he was swinging so hard, and I knew that I wasn’t. I wasn’t cutting it next to him. So I redoubled my efforts, trying to get a grip on my weaknesses. There’s one tune on the new Blue Note sessions, an up, swinging track that went okay, but one where, when I listened back, I realized that I was just not hanging with Jack DeJohnette well enough. Give me another year and I’ll be back. As famous as the great drummers in jazz are, they’re still underrated. You can’t even really talk about it.

I don’t know what track you could be talking about; the whole album swings. Was that swing inherent in the compositions before you hit the record button? Was it what made you want DeJohnette in the first place? 

I always loved Jack—who doesn’t?—but never assumed that I’d have the chance to play with him. The pandemic did open doors as well as, sadly, close so many. Larry Grenadier and I were already friends, and he plays with Jack. I knew that Jack wasn’t really doing anything during Covid. So Larry vouched for me with Jack, told him to look out for a call from this kid, and that we’d all have a nice time together. He and Larry sort of live together and have a studio out back of their house. Post-Bad Plus, I had been writing a lot. Every week a new tune. When this came together with DeJohnette, I picked the best ones. The easiest ones too, because I didn’t want to wrestle the paper to the ground. I wanted Jack to be comfortable and for us to start playing, together, quickly. Working with older legends, I’m not going to sit there and make them learn complicated new concepts. 

Ethan Iverson (photo: Keith Major)
Ethan Iverson (photo: Keith Major)

See, I have the words “basic,” “minimalist,” and “bold” in my notes after the first listen, as well as references to pop and your first Bad Plus records.

There is swing, or something jazzy about the texture. You’re right, it is a return to some of the Bad Plus sort of big, bright piano. And most of the tunes you hear on the album are first takes—the first three tunes, to start. With Tootie, I wouldn’t have played piano like that. With Billy Hart, I threw in more Herbie Hancock references. My true voice is actually one with less jazz harmony and more simple triads, and basic, eternal structure. The idea of starting from a basic place is all over this record. That Bad Plus clarity with the maturity of jazz swing.

It’s your sound, why not use it?

A lot of it comes from classical music. When I was working with Mark Morris, I had a lot of on-the-job experience with European classical music. All jazz pianists fool around with European classical, but I’ve accompanied leaders, singers, and played chamber music at a pretty high level. In Philadelphia I can remember being with Mark Morris, playing the Schumann Piano Quintet, and conductor Sir Simon Rattle was in the audience. Afterwards, he came up to me and said, “Nice rubato.” If Sir Simon says I’m cool, that’s good enough for me. That’s a big element of why the Bad Plus did what it did.

You’ve mentioned the Bad Plus a few times here. It’s five years since you left that trio. Not looking for regrets or benefits—just thoughts.

We were together 17 years. A long time. It was all surprising to me. I always thought that I would labor in obscurity. The fat nerd who never socially adjusted. The fact that we got signed to Columbia Records was a surprise. That I made records for ECM and Manfred Eicher was a surprise. That Don Was signed me to Blue Note for a trio record with Jack DeJohnette. Honestly. I don’t know what to say about it all, save for the fact that I love music, and see the Bad Plus years as being on a brightly lit stage. I got to share my love of music with Reid and Dave on that stage for all that time. That was beating enormous odds.

We live in a time where there are no more labels, and yet Blue Note and ECM are still standing, more curatorial than ever while simultaneously looking to the future.

All of humanity loves the classic Blue Note albums. Don Was has done an amazing job of curating a 21st-century label. It’s not just resting on its laurels. And often, it comes down to one person: ECM with Manfred, and Blue Note with Don. Alfred Lion was a dude with a preternatural sense for what would work. Lorraine Gordon ran the Village Vanguard after her husband [Max] died, and she had this strange understanding of how to make the club stay relevant. Don is another of those totally unique personalities. He’s a doll, frankly. And idiosyncratic. There’s aren’t enough big personalities in jazz anymore. Don is holding it down—he’s one idiosyncratic motherfucker, the way he talks, carries himself, and relates to music.

Idiosyncratic motherfucker—there’s my pull quote. I would be remiss if I didn’t ask what connects your music to Ellen Raskin, the children’s mystery author. You named a track after her here, and for me growing up, beyond the Beats, she was one of my kid-lit heroes. Such a nice memory.

Whatever you liked when you were young, you’re probably stuck with for the rest of your life. I’m old enough now to admit that I am afflicted with nostalgia. I was obsessed with [Raskin’s 1978 Newbery Medal-winning novel] The Westing Game in fifth grade. I made my teacher read it to the class, one chapter at a time. I loved [1971’s] The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel). Raskin and Daniel Pinkwater are the most significant authors of that time for me. Talk about a reason to live, these books. I ordered copies of her work a few years back and found her writing to still be awesome. She’s from Wisconsin, as I am, and—as far as I know—this will be the first jazz tribute to Ellen Raskin, and why not? I wanted people who loved her, people like you, to feel the way you used to.

Going back to the period in which this new album was recorded—which was, of course, one of great isolation—how did that lonely openness affect the recording?

Part of the job is to reflect what’s going on, at least a little bit. Jazz improvisers play the room, and what you see in the room. That’s like Charlie Parker quoting “Anchors Aweigh” when he saw a sailor in the room. I’m no Charlie Parker, but in my limited experience, I am able to change the way the music goes based on that very moment. In a macro sense, everybody’s probably had the pandemic as part of their work since its start, but in another way, I think it is important to be positive. I can’t really operate from a place of cynicism or despair. Plenty of people have had it worse. It’s a blessing to be in this field.

While we’re on the subject of a positive outlook, could you discuss “The More It Changes” and why it features a choir, your wife’s lyrics, and your own singing voice?

I’m not much of a singer, but I like amateur singing—up to a point [laughs]. There’s something about the use of an unframed choir that can bring tears to my eyes. The words came first. I wrote to her lyrics. The song is about believing in the future, essentially. It’s important to try to do that, despite all the reading to the contrary that there is no future. The song is not fake. It’s sincere. The reality of it came down to being told not to travel, not to go see anyone. What I could do, though, is put 40 buddies together, a socially distanced choir, and it would be fun for everybody, a moment of connectedness for my little circle. All of my friends sent back their vocal tapes right away, and it must have blown everyone’s mind when Don Was and the label picked up the record. All of a sudden, all of my friends had to sign contracts with Blue Note. I love that.

Before & After With Ethan Iverson

Ethan Iverson: A Decade of “Do the Math”