Pianist Ethan Iverson is known primarily for his work in the Bad Plus, and despite that band’s wink-wink genre-busting and wildly unpredictable repertoire, he’s always shown a great respect and reverence for the jazz canon and for those elders who have made that such a grand tradition. That’s certainly been the case with Ethan’s series of interviews and commentaries in his don’t-miss blog Do The Math (www.dothemath.typepad.com). At the time of Cedar Walton‘s recent passing I went back to read Ethan’s interview with the unassuming but superbly productive NEA Jazz Master. That sit-down with Cedar was one of the absolute best interviews with the under-appreciated pianist. The same is true with his recent DownBeat interview with newly minted NEA Jazz Master Keith Jarrett. In both interviews Iverson displayed enormous respect for both those pianist’s contributions, yet he approached both with a reporter’s sense of getting at the crux of their artistry and their respective contributions, and decidedly not as artist/sycophant.
Ethan Iverson, the intrepid scribe at work on Do The Math…
Ever notice how broad the music can get when musicians of different generations collaborate in a band or studio recording context? Some of the best jazz is made by ensembles that can bring different generational perspectives to the bandstand. I can certainly understand the proclivity of young musicians to interact with their classmates and peers, but young musicians can certainly benefit and make great music in partnership with older, more experienced musicians; and certainly the reverse is true as well, when older musicians engage young musicians outside their generational perspective to make music. Betty Carter, who for many years benefitted from having younger musicians on her bandstand, and actively sought them out even well before her Jazz Ahead training sessions, in conversation would often take her peers to task for not engaging and mentoring younger musicians in their bands, for instead taking the comfortable route of employing peers. One notable recent example of multi-generation magic came at the Chicago Jazz Festival when the wily old NEA Jazz Master Jimmy Heath engaged Winard Harper on drums and Jeb Patton on piano (my bad, completely missed the bassist’s name but he was Patton’s peer), comprising three different generations on the bandstand, and the resulting set was superb. Besides the obvious advantage for young musicians of being mentored by the wisdom of elders, the elders can certainly gain further insight from the contemporary perspectives younger musicians can bring to their bandstand.
In addition to his interviews with the masters, Ethan Iverson has also interacted quite successfully with elders. Excellent examples include his ongoing work with the great drummers Billy Hart and Albert “Tootie” Heath; the latter in trio with Iverson’s peer bassist Ben Street, as evidenced by two lively recordings Live at Smalls (Smallslive) from 2010, and their more recent Tootie’s Tempo (Sunnyside), released a few weeks back. More recently is Costumes Are Mandatory (HighNote), a quartet date with peers Larry Grenadier on bass, Jorge Rossy on drums, and NEA Jazz Master Lee Konitz‘ dry martini alto saxophone. This aspect of multi-generation interaction on the bandstand and in the studio is something the Independent Ear will continue to explore, but for now it seemed time to put some questions on that aspect of his work to Ethan Iverson directly.
Live at Smalls with Albert “Tootie” Heath, Ethan Iverson, Ben Street (Smallslive)
In your blog Do the Math you have frequently interviewed or written about the wisdom of elder musicians, and in your recent collaborations you’ve engaged with elder musicians as well. What’s your sense of what happens from a musical chemistry standpoint when musicians from different generations colloborate for a recording project or join forces in a working band?
In general I think it is best for the younger players to go to the older players. That transmission seems natural, whereas if the older player has to go to the younger that can seem forced. When Joe Henderson tore it up with Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb, he played their Miles Davis repertoire: he didn’t bring in hard Joe Hen originals like “Inner Urge” or “Serenity.” Still, many people consider that live session to be some of the best Joe Henderson.
The minute I wrote that, though, I’m thinking of exceptions. Billy Hart demands “new” all the time from his younger partners, but then again Billy’s a really rare musician indeed.
At any rate, if I play with Billy, Lee Konitz, or Tootie Heath, it takes just a note from any of them to dramatically shift the gravity of the music to a more grounded space. I like history, so for me it feels natural to find a way to see the whole spectrum in these collaborations.
It’s simply an honor. The end result is almost less important to me, really, than just the process of getting in the mix with the masters and trying to absorb some of their depth.
What benefits do you see acruing on both sides of the generational equation when that happens?
I am more confident (although still a student) when dealing with swing after playing with Tootie and Billy. Lee teaches me about singing and melodic beauty. I don’t know if they got anything from me! Better ask them!
Costumes Are Mandatory with Ethan Iverson, Lee Konitz, Larry Grenadier, and Jorge Rossy (HighNote)
What are some of your favorite – either classic or contemporary – examples of successful interactions between musicians from different experience and generational perspectives?
Two of my all time favorite trios are great examples. Hank Jones was the elder with Ron Carter and Tony Williams, and Geri Allen was the youngster with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian. (Both of those groups are direct antecedents of The Bad Plus, by the way.)
I mentioned Joe Henderson w. classic Wynton K. trio already. Another one that’s interesting is when Sid Catlett sits in for Max Roach on “Hot House” with Bird and Diz at Town Hall: of course Max is great, but the music suddenly swings harder with Big Sid.
More recently, I loved that Jason Moran hired Sam Rivers for BLACK STARS. Bill McHenry getting Andrew Cyrille in his band was a stroke of genius. And I’m planning to go see Tarbaby — peers Orrin Evans, Eric Revis, and Nasheet Waits with elder legend Oliver Lake — tonight!
Tootie’s Tempo with Albert “Tootie” Heath, Ethan Iverson, Ben Street (Sunnyside)