Q&A with Ethan Iverson: Addition through Subtraction

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In April, Iverson announced that he will leave The Bad Plus, the band he helped found in 2000. (Photo: Courtesy Criss Cross Jazz)

The pianist Ethan Iverson seemed somewhat chastened backstage at the Jazz Standard on a Friday afternoon in spring. For the past couple of months, he had been at the center of a controversy about sexism in jazz because of an interview he did on his blog, Do the Math, with Robert Glasper. The interview contained a line from Glasper many construed as misogynistic. Dressed in somber black, Iverson was particularly careful with the words he used, sometimes taking long pauses of 10 seconds or more before answering a question. But he was also ready to look past the mini-scandal that had thrown something of a dark shadow over what should have been a celebratory time.
 
In April, Iverson announced that he will leave The Bad Plus, the genre-busting trio he formed with the bassist Reid Anderson and the drummer Dave King about 17 years ago. For many fans of the band, it was a bittersweet moment, but for Iverson, who will be replaced by the pianist Orrin Evans, it was perhaps a move past due.

At 44, Iverson is finally striking out on his own to pursue a solo career he had always been tinkering with on the side, performing and recording with such musicians as the late Paul Motian, Albert “Tootie” Heath and Lee Konitz, among many others.
 
In our conversation, Iverson spoke about his long association with The Bad Plus and how he intends to move on, including plans for a book about jazz, an upcoming run at the Jazz Standard with Ron Carter and Billy Hart and a yet-to-be-assembled trio with the bassist Joe Sanders and the drummer Jorge Rossy.
 
I have to say that I wasn’t entirely surprised when I read that you were leaving The Bad Plus. When did you decide that you were going to do it?
 
Actually, it was when Trump got elected, because it really feels like there’s an atomic clock counting down to extinction, and that you can play it safe or you can go for what you think is your most self-actualized self.
 
And you found that you had said all you wanted to say, and more, in The Bad Plus?

Yeah, it’ll be 17 years at the end of this. In interviews with the band it tends to be, “What is the new story with you guys?” And maybe there hasn’t been a new story for a while. So I sort of think the statement has been the statement. We’ve played a lot. We’ve played so much, you know?
 
How many shows have you played since the beginning?
 
We’ve done at least 100 shows a year for 17 years, so whatever that means.
 
So how did you bring it up with the band? Was it casual, or did you sit them down?
 
No, I just told them. I don’t think they were surprised either.
 
And is there any tension now?
 
I think it’s probably less tense than it was, because it wasn’t a functioning organism, internally.
 
Is it because you guys all spent too much time together? Did you get tired of each other?
 
I think we all have strong visions for the music, and at some point, those two [Reid Anderson and Dave King] are really on the same page still, and I’m not on that same page.
 
What’s their page?
 
I feel like I shouldn’t speak for them, but in my own work, I really want to engage with the past as much as the present. Like, there was nothing more contemporary than The Bad Plus. When we hit, we were the new thing. Definitively. And I have a lot of interest in history, I have a lot of interest in European classical music, and my ideal is to really study jazz and study European classical music and make a mix that I feel satisfies both parents. And The Bad Plus has a real influence of indie rock as well. I’m in my mid-40s, and I don’t need to deal with that anymore. I don’t need to take on indie rock anymore, or electronica, or anything on the radio, really. I did that. Going on from here, I just want to till the garden of jazz and modern classical music.
 
Do you also feel like you want to play with some of the great jazz musicians who are sort of going extinct?
 
Well, I’ve already sort of done that. I’ve done it as much as I could. I’ve played with a lot of people, and I’ve also interviewed a lot of people—and tried to write essays assessing why this music is so great. In a way, I’ve tried to be a witness. I remember when The Bad Plus got signed to Columbia Records—the phone call came in saying it was going to happen, we were doing it—and this was in the days when a record deal was still a big deal. I knew it was going to be a lot of money and a lot of promotion. They were going to try to make it happen for us, old-school style.

I went out by myself and started drinking, and apologizing to Hampton Hawes and Sonny Clark, even Hank Jones. All these greats who didn’t get this chance that I was going to get. And immediately, within a year or two of The Bad Plus getting going, I was trying to write about the music, to share with our fans that there was a bigger story about this than just the three of us. I immediately moved to maintain connections with the three greatest musicians I knew who would play with me. Besides Reid and Dave, it was Billy Hart and Ben Street and Mark Turner.
 
But Billy Hart, in particular, is someone who’s been so crucial to me in terms of trying to understand anything about what we call jazz. He’s really a guru, and he’s not just my guru, he’s a guru for many. But his interview on Do the Math was very important, and was the start of all those interviews.

Actually, what happened is Dewey Redman died, and I was thinking about Dewey, because I’d played with him a little bit, and he was my favorite saxophonist, in a way. I had done a tour with him, and he told me all these incredible stories, which were not something you could find in a history book or in liner notes. And I thought, I blew it, I didn’t chase down Dewey; he’s gone, and none of those stories are going to be said again. So, that next weekend I went out to Billy Hart’s house with my recorder and did that interview, and I felt the power as I was doing it. I was like, this is important to do.
 
And I haven’t talked to everybody who I want to talk to yet, but I’ve talked to a lot of people, and you know, some of them are already gone—Charlie Haden, Gunther Schuller, Cedar Walton. The Cedar Walton interview, I think, is very important. There’s a lot of Charlie Haden interviews, and I think there’s a lot of Gunther Schuller interviews. But Cedar Walton is someone that what he represented for culture was so important, and it’s pretty misunderstood, in my opinion. I don’t think there’s been nearly enough musicological analysis of the greatness of Cedar Walton. Those kinds of guys, the great African-American, straightahead masters, the guys who were born in segregation and made this incredibly swinging and intellectual music that’s going to last forever because the records are still beloved. But I don’t think the culture understands why they’re so great the way the culture understands why Beethoven is so great.
 
If I’m reading you correctly, is it accurate to say that your blog is a kind of act of contrition because you were achieving the kind of monetary success and recognition that these guys didn’t get in their lifetimes?
 
Well, I think there’s more ego involved to it than that. I think I’m good at it.
 
Well, yes, you have an encyclopedic knowledge of this music.
 
That was just a factor in terms of writing about the music. But I always try to be really respectful of everybody I interact with who I regard in that sort of elite jazz-master status. I never come in like, I got this. I’m always pretty respectful. So contrition is way too strong because I’m aware that it’s powerful what I do there. It’s a good mesh. But what I don’t do is, when I interviewed Cedar Walton, I didn’t assume Cedar and I were equals just because The Bad Plus was on some jazz magazine covers, if you see what I mean.
 
Did you ever get snubbed by anyone you wanted to talk to because you weren’t necessarily in the same stratum as they were?
 
That’s a good question, but I don’t think so because so few people have really been interested. And just me showing the interest was unique enough.
 
Would you ever want to publish your interviews? I see them as a kind of modern-day analog to Arthur Taylor’s Notes and Tones.
 
Maybe at some point. They’re there, and everyone who’s interested has read them. I am planning to write a book of new material.
 
About what?
 
About jazz.
 
Like an oral history?
 
No, it would just be more like my own opinion about all the stuff. Because what I’ve been doing, in a way, is taking these 15 years or whatever of studying what the music is and then assessing my own opinions—just trying to talk about why I think this is great.
 
Have you started the book?
 
I have a couple of chapters. I’m letting things roll around and I’m still listening and thinking about it. I’m probably not going to do a really big capital-P paragraph start until next year when I’m done touring with The Bad Plus. It’s going to be pretty frantic this year, but I’m thinking about it and I’m listening and I’m talking to people.
 
Where do you see it fitting into the canon of jazz books?
 
I think it’s more like the great classical pianist Charles Rosen. He’s a big influence. Going back further, C.P.E. Bach wrote about how to play keyboard instruments. They were both practitioners, and they were writers as well. Since they were practitioners, the writing has a real timeless quality. I’m not saying I’m going to be as great as those two guys, but in my mind, that’s what I’m thinking about—someone who’s actually inside of this stuff, who’s played with Ron Carter, played in The Bad Plus, and has an insider’s perspective on the nuts and bolts of the music.

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