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Ethan IversonPedro Martin Gonzalez Castillo/Getty Images
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Ethan Iverson’s Swinging, Soulful Blue Note Debut

The brilliant jazz pianist and conservator ventures into Steely Dan territory—and that’s a compliment

by
Tony Badran
February 28, 2022
Pedro Martin Gonzalez Castillo/Getty Images
Ethan IversonPedro Martin Gonzalez Castillo/Getty Images

Jazz pianist Ethan Iverson is best known to many for the music he made with The Bad Plus, which combined a rock and pop feel with the avant-garde and jazz improvisations. Yet Iverson has always been as much a jazz traditionalist as an innovator. Even before leaving The Bad Plus in 2017, Iverson has been collaborating with jazz elders, performing and recording with greats like Albert “Tootie” Heath, the late Lee Konitz, Tom Harrell, Al Foster, Billy Hart, and Ron Carter, whose work he studies and shares on his invaluable website Do The Math.

Iverson’s respect for and engagement with the jazz tradition imbues his music with a real warmth while avoiding the traps of musty pretentiousness. “The notion of ‘innovation’,” Iverson wrote in a post on Keith Jarrett, “usually means, ‘a fresh way of combining older elements.’” The pianist’s debut album on the Blue Note label, Every Note Is True, reflects this conversation between the current and the timeless in Iverson’s distinct voice. The result is a remarkable album that is entirely worthy of the great players he admires.

Every Note Is True is framed by a pair of tracks that embody core components of the tradition. The album’s lead track, a brief intro of just over a minute, is a choral number, appropriately titled “The More It Changes.” The more than 40 members of the choir recorded their parts separately on their phones, due to COVID restrictions. The first thing that came to my mind when I heard it was the beloved master pianist Barry Harris, who passed away in December. Before COVID, Harris was still holding his weekly workshop in the city, where he taught standards to his amateur choir. When Barry would perform around the city, members of the choir would often attend, and at some point would join in, as members of audience, behind his playing. No matter how many times you experienced this form of musical community, it was always deeply moving. In turn, the choral track sets up a song called “The Eternal Verities,” which evokes a church hymn.

On the back end, the pianist and his trio take us out with a blues (“At the Bells and Motley”)—the only track where the players stretch out. Suspended between these two foundational poles is the swinging “Goodness Knows,” a tune that conjures the spirit of Thelonious Monk (along with echoes, to my ears at least, of Ellington).

Both tracks feature tasty solos by bassist Larry Grenadier, whose driving pulse is steady and true throughout the record. His authoritative thump on “At the Bells and Motley” is gratifying. The third pillar of the trio is master drummer Jack DeJohnette.

While Iverson has worked with a number of master drummers, his collaboration with DeJohnette for this record is inspired. The mixing and mastering does great justice to DeJohnette’s legendary drumming, capturing his outstanding touch and mastery of texture and dynamics. Iverson says he composed “For Ellen Raskin,” a jazz waltz, with DeJohnette in mind. The three-way conversation on the track is perfectly balanced. Meanwhile, “Blue” is a DeJohnette composition to which Iverson gives a fresh interpretation. The interplay between Iverson’s right hand arabesques and DeJohnette’s delicate cymbal work, contrasting with a rumbling sustained left hand and a thundering floor tom, over which Grenadier floats freely, creates an exquisite sound.

“Merely Improbable” is another straight-ahead swinging tune, where Iverson manages to weave his quirky and witty choices into the melody and bop lines. DeJohnette and Grenadier swing hard, with DeJohnette playing melodically, almost in unison with Iverson on the head. The drums crackle and pop as DeJohnette lets loose on “Praise Will Travel.” Iverson’s solo piano is featured on “Had I but Known,” alternating, seemingly undecided, between wistfulness and optimism—like all of us, I suppose, in this American moment.

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Ethan Iverson & Umbria Jazz Orchestra - Tempus Fugit
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Ethan Iverson & Umbria Jazz Orchestra - Tempus Fugit

As I listened through Iverson’s new record a second and then a third time I couldn’t stop thinking about how there was something about the sound he was after that is very much akin to the classic American rock band—if that’s what they were—Steely Dan. It wasn’t necessarily the style of music, of course. Still, I couldn’t shake off this seemingly odd and maybe to some unwelcome impression.

Then it hit me: Both artists are drawing from the same wellsprings of 20th-century American popular music and culture. You have the format and feel of popular song—on average, all but one of the tracks on Every Note run at about four minutes. There are the references to a specific literary genre—in Iverson’s case it’s the mystery novel, reflected in the track titles “For Ellen Raskin” and “At the Bells and Motley.” In Steely Dan’s case, it was primarily science fiction and Nabokov. In common they have Thelonious Monk, who’s a primary influence for Iverson, and whom Donald Fagen once described as the alien in his bedroom growing up in suburban New Jersey.

Most importantly—and this is when it clicked for me—there’s TV music. During the early COVID days, Iverson did a series of his takes on theme music from TV shows mainly of our generation, but also some older classics. In the end, he composed one of his own, which appears on the record: “She Won’t Forget Me.” TV music was also an essential component in Steely Dan’s musical concept. Fagen speaks of the influence of what he calls “fake jazz”—the music from TV shows, and movies more generally, of his time, especially the work of Henri Mancini. In Iverson’s case, it’s more Burt Bacharach.

Combine all these elements and you get something wonderfully American. To me, that was, and remains, the singular appeal of Steely Dan, and, in addition to stellar musicianship, is what makes Iverson’s Every Note Is True such a satisfying listen. But as I thought of these connections, I also recalled that Iverson had expressed a lack of enthusiasm for the music of Steely Dan—which created a dissonance that I felt I had to resolve.

For one thing, the soundtrack of Iverson’s youth is jazz of the 1970s (and ’80s). The stars of that period, musicians like Keith Jarrett and Michael Brecker (both of whom had longstanding collaborations with DeJohnette), influenced Steely Dan’s (and Donald Fagen’s) sound, both as contemporary influences and as session musicians.

So I reached out to Ethan and asked what exactly about Steely Dan didn’t sit well with him. It turns out it’s not as serious as I feared it might be: “They use lots of jazz chords, which makes them closer to fusion,” he replied. “I guess I prefer my rock to be more pure of heart.”

Steely Dan is commonly “accused” of being purveyors of fusion or “jazz rock,” a charge which Fagen and the late Walter Becker have dismissed. What Fagen and Becker did was to draw on various elements of the American tradition, jazz being a prominent element, and from periods and sources which otherwise had not been properly explored in a pop context. “Our whole thing has been sort of bridging to the past and trying to perhaps engender something different out of the past without throwing it [away],” said Fagen.

That sounds suspiciously similar to Iverson’s concept. Jazz is “a living repertoire,” Iverson maintains. In one of his posts, Iverson, who is also an educator, offered this lesson to his students: “Somehow all great jazz is connected to the present day. What is happening right now informs relevant jazz. Other elements are timeless. The blues doesn’t really change over time.”

Just as Iverson gave pride of place on his record to the blues, so did Fagen and Becker in their songwriting. “In order to give [a song] some focus,” Fagen explained, “the best thing is to start with the basics, which is blues.” What came next was to take the blues form “and expanding it either harmonically or changing the structure so that you have a basic blues feeling to it but you end up with a song that’s more complex.” Fagen might as well have been quoting Albert Murray word for word on “extending, elaborating, and refining” the form. The tradition, in the end, is the common ground.

To celebrate the release of Every Note, Iverson and his trio, with the fabulous Nasheet Waits sitting in for DeJohnette, recently performed tunes from the album at Roulette in Brooklyn. They closed out with Iverson’s arrangement of Monk’s classic “‘Round Midnight.” In a scene that captures the magic of jazz, especially in the small combo format, Iverson surprises Grenadier by landing on the major third instead of the minor third in the tune’s famous melody. Grenadier’s reaction to the quip is priceless. You can see it here at the 2:19:04 mark.

Like Steely Dan, Iverson draws on the experience of growing up in an America of a different time. It’s what makes Every Note Is True an endearing record. That it arrives at a moment of turmoil in America, where the idea of a common culture itself, musical or otherwise, has become nearly unspeakable, makes it an important record, too.

Tony Badran is Tablet magazine’s Levant analyst and a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.