Before & After With Ethan Iverson

Playing it straight

Muhal Richard Abrams
Bud Powell
Ethan Iverson

Between touring and recording in the Bad Plus, playing with living legends on the order of Ron Carter, Billy Hart and Albert “Tootie” Heath and writing about jazz with superior insight on his blog, Do the Math, Ethan Iverson has gained a reputation not only as a leading pianist but as one of the jazz scene’s most acutely sensitive listeners. On the day before a big New York concert with the Bad Plus and guests (tackling the 1972 Ornette Coleman classic Science Fiction), Iverson sat in his Brooklyn apartment and offered thoughts on a wide range of piano music, always with an eye on the big picture.

1. Brad Mehldau Trio

“Brownie Speaks” (from Where Do You Start, Nonesuch). Mehldau, piano; Larry Grenadier, bass; Jeff Ballard, drums. Recorded in 2008.

BEFORE: [listens to leadoff bass solo, then at length to piano solo, saying nothing] The first time I heard Larry Grenadier he was still a teenager, and he was playing in Joe Henderson’s quartet. I’ll never forget how he cut the piano player that night. His solos were so good. I felt for Brad there in a way, like, OK, you’re playing these “Rhythm” changes in A, and you give Larry the first solo. Of course Brad’s one of the great piano players, but he had a bit of a challenge on that track, I think, playing cleanup for Larry.

Brad has an incredible harmonic imagination. Even playing “Rhythm” changes in A is an indication of some breadth. Is this Brad’s tune?

No, Clifford Brown’s.

Well, he played it like it was his tune. Clifford Brown didn’t play it in A, I’ll tell you that much. [Ed. note: Brown played it in B-flat, and much faster.]

2. Muhal Richard Abrams

“Part 2” (from Vision Towards Essence, Pi). Abrams, piano. Recorded in 1998.

BEFORE: I think it’s Matthew Shipp. It makes me think

about how far improvised piano has come in terms of the different harmonic colors he’s able to access, as compared to maybe a more hardcore perspective-a Cecil Taylor perspective, a Lowell Davidson perspective, even an Alice Coltrane perspective. It just shows you that everything is available.

AFTER: Damn it, I know this. In fact, I cited this album on my blog. That’s embarrassing. I remember it starting with a low A and I almost said, “This is just like that Muhal Richard Abrams thing that starts with that low A.” [laughs]

Have you listened to a lot of his work?

Not enough. I would go so far as to say he’s a blind spot in my listening. But I know he’s a very beautiful musician. I think he did a lot, probably the most out of all the piano players, to try to erase the divide between modern classical music and jazz music. You hear it in [this track].

3. Gerald Clayton

“Future Reflection” (from Life Forum, Concord Jazz). Clayton, piano; Ambrose Akinmusire, trumpet; Logan Richardson, alto saxophone; Dayna Stephens, tenor saxophone; Joe Sanders, bass; Justin Brown, drums; Gretchen Parlato, vocals. Recorded in 2012.

BEFORE: I’m really envious of that piano player, who plays so percussively and beautifully through that complex form. He did some things that really surprised me. I have no idea who it is. There’s a lot of people playing this kind of music now, in a way. It’s music that I don’t listen to much because I don’t want to be influenced by it, this sort of current thing. I’m like, “I don’t want to check that out because I don’t need that. I’m already too old for it.” [laughs]

AFTER: He sounds great. What I heard in the composition was a tension between some more outré or prog elements and then the sort of Jaco [Pastorius] Word of Mouth/Weather Report thing. If I were in charge, I’d cut out all the Jaco/Weather Report stuff and just do the prog stuff. It can get a little schmaltzy for my own taste.

Which parts are “prog,” in your view?

The odd-meter hooks, the very beginning of the track. But obviously Gerald is phenomenally talented and can do whatever he wants.

4. Bud Powell

“Off Minor” (from The Complete Blue Note and Roost Recordings, Blue Note). Powell, piano; Curley Russell, bass; Max Roach, drums. Recorded in 1947.

BEFORE: It’s great to hear that again. Bud and Monk were very close and did a lot of hanging out, showing each other stuff. There’s this, but on the same record there’s “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” which they also both play. They both sort of play it the same way. Not everyone plays that song, but those two cats play it.

This track makes me think of how mysterious the real bebop is. Monk and Bud know harmonic and percussive secrets, and they just keep it to themselves and play the stuff that no one else has. We still don’t have it. It’s still completely radical, what we just heard. No one else has learned what that was, and I don’t think anyone ever will. It’s a very private, personal language.

It’s also slightly over-pedaled. Bud hadn’t recorded much at this point and was maybe a little nervous at this session. In general he’s a little heavy on the damper pedal. But who am I to criticize Bud fuckin’ Powell?

5. Andy Milne & Benoît Delbecq

“Ice Storm” (from Where Is Pannonica?, Songlines). Milne, Delbecq, Steinway pianos. Recorded in 2008.

BEFORE: It sounds like multiple pianists. [pause] There’s that Fred Hersch record with Benoît Delbecq [2013’s Fun House], but there’s nothing this thorny on it. Is this it?

You’re in the right galaxy.

Well it’s Benoît then, of course. But it’s not Fred. … Oh, it’s gotta be Andy Milne.

Yeah, Benoît is a big influence on me. I met him and Andy at the same Banff workshop. This was like 1990. I don’t know Andy as well, though it’s always great to hear him. But Benoît and I have hung out a lot over the years, and he’s honestly one of those guys I can really sincerely say I’ve stolen from. It’s only a few peers I feel that about. But Benoît, I should probably write him a check.

Do you know this record?

I didn’t listen to it much because I also got to hear it live. There’s a lot there and I should study it. It’s quite brilliant the way it’s orchestrated for the two pianos. They put a lot of thought into how that would work-and of course this “drum” part, which is the prepared piano. Now, I think that must be an Andy tune.

It is.

That just shows you that I’ve got to get more into Andy Milne. Because it’s obviously very advanced composition.

To read the rest of this story, purchase the issue in print or from the Apple Newsstand. Print and digital subscriptions are also available.

David R. Adler

David R. Adler writes about jazz and assorted topics. His work has appeared in JazzTimes, NPR Music, WBGO.org, The Philadelphia InquirerThe Village Voice, DownBeat, Time Out New York, and many other publications. From 2010-2017 he taught jazz history at the Aaron Copland School of Music (Queens College-CUNY). In summer 2017, after 30 years in New York (apart from two in Philadelphia), David relocated with his family to Athens, Georgia. There he continues to write about music and perform solo as a guitarist/vocalist.