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Ethan Iverson’s new trio is not Bad

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By Dan Emerson.

Pianist and composer Ethan Iverson will return to the Twin Cities January 13 to perform at Crooner’s in Fridley, about a month before Blue Note Records releases his new album “Every Note Is True.”
Best known as a co-founder of the influential trio The Bad Plus, Iverson recorded the all-original album in January, 2020 with two veteran musicians he considers masters, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jack DeJohnette. Iverson composed nine of the 10 tracks on his debut album for Blue Note, the only exception being DeJohnette’s composition “Blue.”
“The pandemic closed a lot of doors but it also opened a couple, at least for me.” Iverson notes. One of those doors led to the new collaboration with Grenadier and DeJohnette, since their schedules were unusually open in early 2020, due to the pandemic.
“After being on the road so much I didn’t mind getting off the road and having more time to practice and compose,” Iverson notes.“I’ve been very busy composing and practicing and I’ve had a fair amount of good news. Last March I was on the cover of Downbeat for the Bud Powell 21st century album, which was a surprise. I’ve been quite prolific in the studio.
Iverson had never worked with DeJohnette, whose resume of past musical collaborators reads like a who’s who of modern jazz. Bassist Grenadier was the go-between who connected Iverson with DeJohnette; Grenadier and DeJohnette live fairly close to each other in upstate New York. “I’ve known Larry for years,” Iverson says.
“I had always wanted to play with Jack. Some people consider him the greatest living drummer. Jack didn’t know me at all. Larry talked to him about it and I sent him some music.” The three got together at a studio in Rhinebeck, N.Y. ,called the Clubhouse, to work with the music. They recorded the songs for the new album in two days in January, 2020. Iverson offered the finished album to Blue Note President Don Was, who liked what he heard and took it on.
“It’s distinctive music but the melodies are not difficult, structurally,” Iverson says. Grenadier and DeJohnette “didn’t have to read much. With the two of them, you don’t need a lot of material. If you bring in something really simple, no more than basic sketches, they’ll take it over and make it sound great. That’s very much in the tradition of those great Blue Note records from the 50s and 60s, where the tunes are memorable but there aren’t too many notes on a page.”
“Both of them are masters and every time I play with true masters I’m impressed with how easy it is. Often because they are such incredible listeners. And they are people who are still entranced by music.” Grenadier is a real virtuoso who can play anything, and he’s also committed to the bass function and deep melody.”
“Every Note Is True” opens with a surprise: “The More It Changes,” features a 44-voice virtual choir gathered from Iverson’s network of contacts. The pianist’s wife, writer Sarah Deming, authored the text, which lends the album its name. “I’m a terrible singer,” Iverson admits. “You can hear my warble high in the mix. But I love amateur singing! An amateur choir or a children’s choir is a glorious, almost cinematic sound.”
Another new composition is “The Eternal Verities,” an upbeat pop-classical piece inspired by the composer’s mother-in-law, Ruth Deming. “She told me that she liked to sit on her porch and contemplate the eternal verities,” Iverson recalls. “This piece fell out of me the next day. The tune sort of loops around itself in an unexpected way, but its harmonic frame is very basic. Traditional harmony is very, very important to me. It is eternal.”
Since leaving the Bad Plus in 2017, the prolific Wisconsin native has pursued a range of other projects. They’ve included collaborations with iconic drummers Billy Hart and Albert “Tootie” Heath; recordings with trumpeter Tom Harrell and saxophonist Mark Turner; and compositions for orchestra, big band, and the Mark Morris Dance Group.
Also in 2017, the Mark Morris Dance Group premiered Pepperland, for which Iverson composed the score (derived from parts of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) and led the band in concert.
In 2018, Iverson premiered his “Concerto to Scale” with the American Composers Orchestra; released the album “Temporary Kings” with saxophonist Mark Turner on the ECM label; and toured Europe with the Billy Hart Quartet.
In 2019, Iverson and trumpeter Tom Harrell released the album “Common Practice,” recorded at the Village Vanguard, on ECM.
In 2021, Iverson’s well-received album “Bud Powell in the 21st Century,” featuring Ingrid Jensen, Dayna Stephens, Ben Street, Lewis Nash, and the Umbria Jazz Orchestra, was released on Sunnyside Records
Of course, how the rest of Iverson’s 2022 plays out will be determined by the course of Covid 19, but he hopes to tour with his own trio ( not including DeJohnette and Grenadier, since they will be busy with other projects). Iverson will also be on the summer circuit with the trio led by veteran drummer Billy Hart, also including bassist Ben Street and saxophonist Mark Turner.
“The pandemic has been very hard for everybody. We’re all just doing the best we can.”
At Crooner’s main stage, Iverson will lead a trio also including Twin Cities-based bassist Anthony Cox and drummer Kevin Washington. The evening’s repertoire will mostly be “familiar standards with a spontaneous spin. We may play one or two things from the new album. “

Dan Emerson is a freelance writer and musician.