Ethan Iverson Talks Communal Jazz In An Exclusive JazzBuffalo Interview

(This past week, Art of Jazz producer, Bruce Eaton, caught up with jazz pianist Ethan Iverson for this exclusive JazzBuffalo interview.)

On Sunday, March 15th the Art of Jazz at the Philharmonic Series will present pianist Ethan Iverson and melodic trumpet master Tom Harrell – two of modern jazz’s leading lights – in a special performance in the Mary Seaton Room at Kleinhans Music Hall.  The pair will be performing material from the “classic New York City jazz” repertoire that made NYC the capital of the jazz world in the 1950s and 60s. This is a rare performance by Iverson and Harrell together outside of New York – making it a don’t miss concert for area music fans. 

Tom Harrell and Ethan Iverson

For more information on this upcoming concert and a link to purchase tickets, visit the JazzBuffalo event listing at Art of Jazz: Ethan Iverson and Tom Harrell Duo.

Art of Jazz producer Bruce Eaton interviews Ethan Iverson about his time with Bad Plus, his album with Tom Harrell, and perspectives on jazz:

BRUCE EATON:  It was quite a while ago [2004] but you performed with the Bad Plus early on in the Art of Jazz Series – we actually booked the band before you’d signed with Sony. We’re really looking forward to your return.

ETHAN IVERSON: I remember that gig well since it was so early on in our career!  Where do the years go? I was with the Bad Plus for 17 years, and am happy to be returning to Buffalo!

BE. Your recent album with Tom Harrell [Common Practice / ECM.  Recorded live at the Village Vanguard.] was one of my favorite albums of 2019 and made a number of year-end “best of” lists. It has a slow-burn, smoldering intensity that reminds me a lot of the Miles Davis In Person at the Blackhawk recordings. I sensed that you really dug deep into the material rather than treating the songs as vehicles for soloing the way they might be at a jam session.  

Image result for ethan iverson common practice

EI: I suspect that everyone in this quartet — Tom, Ben Street, Eric McPherson, and myself — really love the songs we play on that album. Tom and I have most of the responsibility for the melody and harmony, and the main operating lever is simply love, both of the original source material and of the jazz tradition of mining that source material for fresh sounds.

BE: You’ve said that the album is “classic NYC jazz” – a love letter to the type of jazz that was prevalent when you first arrived in New York City.  Can you expand on that a bit?

EI: The music has changed somewhat. When I arrived in NYC in 1991, “going out to hear jazz” meant that you were going to see communal music with an agreed set of values. Now when “you go out to hear jazz,” the odds are that you will find a leader or group who only play their original music. There’s nothing wrong with this — the Bad Plus was not communal music — but I have been interested in trying to stay connected to the communal aspect of jazz history. Of course, Tom Harrell embodies that kind of history. However, these days even Tom Harrell mostly plays original music with his great bands: and he should, for he is a great composer. Still, it is really refreshing to hear Tom Harrell play standards in 2020!

BE. I was speaking with a prominent person in the jazz business and when I mentioned that I was going to present Tom and you together, he said without hesitation “Tom Harrell has been making the best records in jazz for the past decade.” One factor you’ve stated in your moving on from the Bad Plus is your desire to play more extensively with the jazz masters who are still with us like Billy Hart, Albert “Tootie” Heath and Ron Carter and learn from them. Tom might not yet qualify for the title of Elder Statesman – age 73 can still be young in jazz years –  but as a concert producer I’ve become increasingly aware that we need to embrace the older generations of jazz musicians and really savor their art rather than be always be looking for the next “new thing”.  

EI: Right. What Tom Harrell or Billy Hart or Tootie Heath or Ron Carter has cannot be taught, it has to be experienced. In my opinion, everyone who is talented and wants to really learn how to play jazz should try to carry the bags of these master musicians. That said — I am nearing the end of my personal dialogues with the masters. In a couple of years, I will be mostly presenting original music. I have had quite a bit of commissions in the last couple of years and my first symphony will premiere in 2021.

BE: With your long-running (and award-winning) blog DoThe Math, Transactional Technology newsletter, and now writing for the New Yorker and JazzTimes, you’ve become one of the pre-eminent jazz journalists of our time. How did writing – which is different from studying and learning – develop into such a passion for you? I’m amazed that you find the time to write as much as you already do, but if you were to be offered a book deal for whatever topic you wanted to choose, do you have an idea in mind that you’d want to tackle? 

BE: I’m not a great prose stylist, but I write quickly and easily. If you need 1000 words on a celebrated jazz pianist I can bang it out in an hour. (My wife Sarah Deming is a much better writer than me and helps me edit.) At one point I was planning a massive history of jazz, but in the end, being a passionate practitioner doesn’t help me be a dispassionate historian. Now I am contemplating a memoir, a form that could be much more opinionated and enjoyably scandalous.

BE: Unless someone is a regular reader of your blog, they probably aren’t aware of the insights you provide into an artist or a particular album.  I’ve spent a fair amount of money buying records that you’ve spotlighted over the years – both decades-old and recent releases that got past me – and they’ve all been great additions to my collection and knowledge of jazz. What are you listening to these days?  

EI: In jazz, I’m listening to a lot of Sonny Clark and Charlie Parker. A modernist classical composer I’m thinking about is Leon Kirchner. And I am accompanying Mark Padmore in Schubert’s Winterreise in May, so I’m auditing various recordings, including Padmore’s marvelous disc with Paul Lewis.

BE: Thanks, Ethan.  We look forward to seeing you on the 15th. 

EI: It’s going to be a special afternoon. Tom Harrell on a ballad can move one to tears. 

The Ethan Iverson and Tom Harrell Duo will appear in the Mary Seaton Room of Kleinhans Music Hall as part of the Art of Jazz at the Philharmonic Series on Sunday, March 15th at 3 pm. Tickets are $34 (students $20) and can be purchased directly at this Keinhans/BPO link: Ethan Iverson and Tom Harrell

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