A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by Jonathan Chimene (courtesy of the artist)

This weekend, pianist Ethan Iverson brings a new quartet to The Jazz Gallery along with a newly composed book of music to explore. Since his departure from The Bad Plus at the end of 2017, Iverson has had a busy year, which has included premiering a new piano concertowriting for the Culture Deskat the New Yorker, and performing with peers and elders.

We spoke by phone with Ethan Iverson, who was spending some time with family in Duluth, Minnesota.

The Jazz Gallery: How’s your summer been?

Ethan Iverson: No complaints! The first year after The Bad Plus, I was worried about having any work at all, and I can’t say that that’s the case; I’ve actually been very busy.

TJG: It definitely seems like it. How did this new band at the Gallery come to form?

EI: I had a gig at Korzo and ended up calling this particular group of musicians. From the first note, I thought it was really a magical gig. We all are very strong personalities, but I think everyone gets along in some kind of way; everyone just enjoyed playing.

At the last second before we began the gig, I somehow heard the Erroll Garner tune “Misty” in my head, and I asked Dayna if he liked playing “Misty.” He looked at me and said, “I love ‘Misty.’”

This is the correct answer, but I don’t know if everybody would give that answer. There are plenty of tenor players that think it’s unhip to play “Misty,” but, for me, that’s the right answer.

We played “Misty” sort of like a space ballad, and then we played a straight ahead blues. I heard each one of these guys so clearly and beautifully. I don’t need to tell you that these are all real stylists. Everybody sounded so damn good, so I thought I should really try to play a bit more with this combination and see if it kept feeling like that.

TJG: Are you playing original music as well?

EI: I’ve written a new book for this band. In fact, everybody has a song written for them. “Dayna’s Dilemma,” “Thomas the Blessèd,” and “E to the MAC.” There are also three or four other new tunes. I’ve written too much music, actually, because I want to play “Misty” and “Tea for Two” and some of those other Iversonian standards as well.

TJG: That all came out of being inspired from the gig at Korzo?

EI: Yeah, it was just one gig. It just felt fresh.

I’ve played a lot with Reid Anderson and I’ve played a lot with Ben Street, and they’ll always be two that I hope to be associated with in people’s minds, but Thomas is also incredible and playing with him was such a blast. He hears everything. The guy I listened to him play with a lot was Masabumi Kikuchi. After Masabumi, there’s nothing that’s going to challenge Thomas Morgan. I can literally play anything and Thomas is going to make it sound good.

Eric McPherson is a real jazz drummer. It’s sort of corny to talk about this, but he’s one of those guys that lives his life and plays the drums with the same texture. That’s what they used to do, actually. Now most of us are quite divided—we’re very Western in our roles. But when I hang out with the old school jazz greats, there’s less division between who you are as a person and the way you play. Of someone remotely in my age group, E-Mac is just about as close as anybody to having that feeling.

What’s hip about Dayna is that he’s got a real sense of fun play in his abstraction. I think Wayne Shorter is a real reference for him; I never played with Wayne, but when I’m comping for Dayna I’m like, “Oh, man, maybe this is like I’m comping for Wayne.” He’s sort of got this elliptical thing, but Dayna’s also really fun. That aspect reminds me of my old friend Bill McHenry, who can be a goofball sometimes. I love that.

The tenor player I’ve played the most with is Mark Turner, and Mark is never a goofball, you know. But with Dayna, there’s something that’s just fun, but also very abstract and cool.

TJG: You had played trio with Thomas and Eric before. Adding Dayna to the group, how does the gravity shift from the trio to the quartet?

EI: Well, I’d played duo with Ron Carter for three nights the week before playing Korzo, and I just couldn’t bear to listen to myself play the melodies anymore. I realized could really use someone else to do some of the heavy lifting. Dayna also reminds me of Josh Redman; the first time through, Josh can fit inside a group and even play counterpoint, a real inside-the-band type of player, and Dayna did that, too, right away. It felt like a mini-orchestra or something.

Post-Bad Plus, I feel like I can’t have another trio. That was a great trio and I had 17 years with them, so the next thing has to be different. I would like to have a big band, but I’m not sure how soon I’ll get to that.

TJG: In terms of your philosophy of bandleading, how do you approach rehearsing original music? 

EI: I’ve been real careful not to write too much stuff in the original music for this gig. I think some of the people in your age group, Kevin, create an awful lot of written music in the Steve Coleman vein, and I’m not about that.

Well, I guess I can be about that: When The Bad Plus played The Rite of Spring, I didn’t even improvise.

But if I have musicians this great, Dayna and Thomas and E-Mac, I really want to hear their personalities.  As you might know, I recently did this moderately deep dive on Wayne Shorterfor an article at the New YorkerCulture Desk. Wayne’s 1964 tunes are so fantastic but they’re not that complicated to read. You can really hear the personalities of McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones and Ron Carter. That was one thing I was thinking about for this quartet: I got these guys. Let them play.

TJG: Out of curiosity, is there much open form improvising, or is it mostly over forms? 

EI: There’s one tune that’s completely free, but I think most the rest of it is forms. “Dayna’s Dilemma” is a bebop tune—it’s actually a nightmare set of changes. I suspect that he’ll be able to play it perfectly the first time, but I’ve been practicing it.

TJG: Harder than “Turner’s Chamber [of Unlikely Delights]”?

EI:  “Turner’s Chambers” is really hard but at least those phrase lengths aren’t complicated. “Dayna’s Dilemma” is like “Autumn Leaves” but Cubist, so that the length of the chords are strange and counter-intuitive.

TJG: I had a chance to read the DownBeat profileyou shared with me. Toward the end, you mention how you felt that, to a certain extent, you had enough materials to sift through to hone in on your own voice as an improvisor. Now that you’ve been post-TBP for a while, do you see yourself shifting more toward original compositions and bandleading and less research? What’s your plan?

EI: When I was in a successful group, that gave me the bandwidth to transcribe all that Lester Young and Bud Powell and so forth. I was just on the bus so often with nothing else to do, so a lot of Do the Math was created in that empty space. At the same time, it kind of taught me how to work. The more you do, the more you do, if that makes sense.

But at this point I don’t have a set ensemble that I plan to lead beyond the collaborative project with Mark Turner. I’m proud of the ECM record Temporary Kings that’s about to come out. Mark seems to want to keep doing it, so we’ll see how it goes. Nobody means more to me than Mark Turner. If Mark wants to play, I’ll play.

Billy Hart is my most important teacher then and now, and we’ll still be playing in his quartet. In terms of “strict jazz” side of things: if I’m getting to play duo with Mark and quartet with Billy, I don’t feel so much of a rush to figure out what my next solo project is.

I’m also playing with Mark Morris’s Pepperland and doing commissioned projects. There are two commissions this season, for the London Jazz Festivaland the Umbria Winter Jazz Festival. Knock on wood, but it seems like people are starting to come to me for curation and commissions. If they keep going well, I guess they’ll keep coming in. We’ll see what happens.

The Ethan Iverson Quartet plays The Jazz Gallery on Friday and Saturday, September 7 and 8, 2018. The group features Mr. Iverson on piano, Dayna Stephens on saxophone, Thomas Morgan on bass, and Eric McPherson on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $35 general admission ($20 for members), $45 reserved cabaret seating ($30 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.