Concert Review: Carla Bley and Ethan Iverson at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival

The 83-year-old piano legend and the former Bad Plus member share a double bill in northern California

Carla Bley
Carla Bley at the 2019 Healdsburg Jazz Festival (photo: George Wells)

There are any number of Northern California jazz festivals that have been around longer than the one in Healdsburg, but none save the granddaddy of them all in Monterey has a history thicker with interconnected relationships. The Wine Country web emanates from festival founder and guiding spirit Jessica Felix, whose longstanding friendships with jazz artists dating back to the 1970s serve as the foundation for her programming. Year after year, she coaxes some of the music’s mightiest improvisers to Sonoma County, pampering players like family while serving up singular musical encounters to lucky locals.

The festival launched its third decade with a roster celebrating the 50th anniversary of ECM Records. Running from May 31 to June 9 at venues around the picturesque town, the lineup included an unprecedented duo pairing Ralph Towner with his Oregon co-founder Paul McCandless (a longtime Northern California resident), and the protean trio of drummer Jack DeJohnette, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, and bassist Matthew Garrison.

I made it up for the June 2 double bill at the Raven Theatre featuring the duo of Mark Turner and Ethan Iverson and the Carla Bley Trio with Steve Swallow and Andy Sheppard. While both acts were making their Healdsburg debut, these musicians are hardly festival newcomers. Turner and Iverson played Healdsburg in 2016 with the Billy Hart Quartet, part of a major celebration of the drummer’s 75th birthday (Hart has played the festival just about every year since its founding). Bley, 83, was last at Healdsburg in 2013 for a Liberation Music Orchestra concert with Charlie Haden, another festival pillar; it was the final time they shared a stage together.

Steve Swallow (photo: George Wells)

Introduced by Haden’s widow, vocalist Ruth Cameron, Bley and Swallow took the stage hand in hand, looking frail but game. The great news is that Bley seems to have been writing up a storm and the trio’s set featured new music from an upcoming album (evidenced by an abundance of sheet music on stage). Deliberately tracing her quirky, often elliptical melodies from one position at the piano, she saved some of the most lyrical passages for Swallow, whose rounded tone and structural sensibility is as acute as ever. On either tenor or soprano sax, Sheppard’s brusque melodic invention and serene editorial discretion—he unerringly picks his spot—make him an ideal interlocutor for the veteran jazz giants.

Andy Sheppard (photo: George Wells)

On “Copy Cat,” Sheppard accompanied Swallow’s solo, shadowing his undulating line with buzzy tenor notes and darting little phrases. Bley was at her sardonic best on “Beautiful Telephones,” perhaps the first jazz composition inspired by a quote from the White House’s current occupant. Introduced as a duo with Swallow, the solemn and cinematic theme wended through several elegiac moods punctured by a series of quotes, including “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Yankee Doodle.” From the ridiculous to the sublime, Bley offered a tribute to Haden with her “Útviklingssang,” a gorgeous piece introduced on the LMO’s 2016 album Time/Life that opened with a delicately coruscating Swallow solo before taking flight.

The set’s centerpiece was Bley’s “Wild Life,” a three-piece suite featuring some of Sheppard’s best work on soprano sax. Opening with the lugubrious and decidedly unmartial “Horns,” the suite turned fierce and fleet with “Paws Without Claws,” and concluded with the gentle, lapidary “Sex With Birds.” She closed the set with Monk’s “Misterioso,” examining his blues with industrious patience. Called back for an encore, the trio sent the audience out into the night with a glimpse at transcendence, easing into a spacious but tightly compressed rendition of Bley’s “Lawns.”

Ethan Iverson and Mark Turner (photo: George Wells)

An NEA Jazz Master and revered figure for some five decades, Bley doesn’t need a champion. But Iverson has been doing his part to elucidate her legacy, including a fascinating interview in which she offers typically candid assessments of fellow jazz innovators. His post-Bad Plus legacy got off to an excellent start with last year’s ECM release Temporary Kings, and his opening set with Turner focused on music from that fine album.

As a duo they keep tension on a low simmer, almost never bubbling over with a sudden shift in dynamics or tempo. Opening with Iverson’s Monkish ballad “Lugano,” they set the ground rules with Turner’s extended lines wrapping around the lush piano chords. Some pieces feel almost through-composed, like the playful “On the Beat,” a slippery melody punctuated by four synchronized finger snaps.

Mark Turner (photo: George Wells)

Iverson’s debt to his former teacher Fred Hersch was most evident on a sumptuously brooding rendition of Billy Strayhorn’s ballad “Chelsea Bridge,” while Turner offered an homage to one of his most important influences with a sleek and piquant version of Warne Marsh’s “Dixie’s Dilemma.” But the sliest hat tip of the evening came during Iverson’s solo on his off-kilter blues “Unclaimed Freight,” when he tucked in a quote of Carla Bley’s early, dreamy ballad “Ida Lupino.” Perfectly placed and easy to miss, it offered a glimpse of the genius to come.

Ethan Iverson (photo: George Wells)

Andrew Gilbert

Andrew Gilbert is a Berkeley-based freelancer who has written about arts and culture since 1989 for numerous publications, including the San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, East Bay Express, Berkeleyside, and KQED’s California Report. Born and raised in Los Angeles, he experienced a series of mind-blowing epiphanies listening to jazz masters at Kuumbwa Jazz Center in the late 1980s, performances he remembers more vividly than the gigs he saw last month.