Ethan Iverson Does Bud Powell Justice

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Ethan Iverson pays tribute to a transformative pianist with Bud Powell In The 21st Century (Sunnyside).

(Photo: Jimmy Katz)

Whenever Ethan Iverson takes on a repertory project, his goal is to do two things simultaneously. “One side is to play it like the composer would want,” said the Brooklyn-based pianist, a New York transplant from Menomonie, Wisconsin, who turned 48 on Feb. 11. “And then the other side is, you’ve got to make it very fresh and do something new. Both things are true. But you’ve got to choose your places for one or the other.”

Iverson faithfully stuck to both self-imposed standards in creating Bud Powell In The 21st Century, a large-scale work that originated as a series of three commissioned performances for the 2018 Umbria Winter Jazz festival in Italy. Now, a recording culled from those shows is being released as a live album on the Sunnyside label.

Iverson’s career has always struck a balance between the presentation of contemporary works and jazz history. Consider his long stint as a founding member of The Bad Plus (from 2000–2017) alongside his frequent ruminations on jazz icons of yesteryear in his blog Do the Math.

In recent years, Iverson has immersed himself in the world of large productions and specially commissioned works. In addition to leading the Powell project, he curated Duke University’s 10-day MONK@100 event, put together an overview of the British jazz scene for the London Jazz Festival, wrote a piano concerto for the American Composers Orchestra, and arranged and composed Beatles-related content for the Mark Morris Dance Group production Pepperland.

As a longtime member of drummer Billy Hart’s quartet, Iverson played the Village Vanguard’s first livestreamed show in June. He recorded the 2018 duo project Temporary Kings (ECM) with tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, and 2019 saw the release of Common Practice (ECM), a live album with trumpeter Tom Harrell. Lately, Iverson has been posting videos of himself on Twitter playing his favorite TV theme songs. And he continues to teach at New England Conservatory.

Bud Powell In The 21st Century is a landmark not only in Iverson’s discography but also in the legacy of Powell (1924–’66), a masterful pianist, bebop innovator and DownBeat Hall of Famer who remains underappreciated today. Iverson has stylishly recreated Powell’s notoriously difficult compositions—which were almost always performed and recorded in a trio setting—for a concert-length big band production, using deep cuts Powell recorded with horns during a 1949 quintet session as his starting point.

With the blessing of Enzo Capua—the artistic consultant and U.S. representative for Umbria Jazz who helped conceive the Powell project—Iverson brought trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, tenor saxophonist Dayna Stevens, bassist Ben Street and drummer Lewis Nash along for the ride. Together, these five American jazz artists served as a core quintet that integrated itself into a larger ensemble of first-call Italian horn players assembled by the festival’s musical director, Manuele Morbidini.

In their collective hands, Powell’s music comes to life in fascinating new ways: as meditative chorales (called “Five Simple Spells”) built upon bits of Powell melodies and improvisations, as fully fleshed-out big band orchestrations and as straightahead quintet arrangements. A pair of Iverson big band pieces composed just for the occasion are also part of the program. It all comes together as one gorgeously woven, grand tapestry that’s simultaneously elegant and awe-inspiring.

For Jensen, the experience opened her ears to the more subtle aspects of Powell’s work and sparked insights into her own playing. “When I was younger, bebop intimidated me because I didn’t have much technique, and when Ethan asked me to do the project, I was like, ‘I think you might have called the wrong person; I don’t really play bebop,” she said. “But at the same time, I really appreciate the way Bud approached the piano, so it deepened my awareness of the lineage. And it helped me get in touch with my inner bebopper—which isn’t really bebop, if that makes sense. After doing this project and digging into the deep details, I realize that this is good music that expands through many different genres. I was like, ‘This is just more deep, melodic music that I have to be able to rhythmically wrap myself around as much as I have to technically stop doubting myself.’”

Morbidini, who played alto saxophone in the big band, described the rehearsals and performances as an “extraordinarily stimulating” experience. “Bud Powell’s music has the amazing ability to renew itself every time you listen to it,” he wrote in an email from Italy. “There always seems to be some element that’s new in a certain way, compared to the last time. I guess it depends on the (lucky) inability of my/our ears to grasp all that’s in there at once. Dealing with it from the perspective of Ethan’s vision amplified this effect: In every piece we worked on, an unexpected reference, an implicit assonance or simply something not so evident, resonated. It is a matter of details and surgical underlining—nothing is more seductive.”

Iverson discussed his deep dive into Powell’s music and shared personal reflections on his Umbria experience during a late-December phone call with DownBeat from his Brooklyn home.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Bud Powell In The 21st Century includes four tunes that Powell recorded in 1949 in a quintet setting, with Sonny Rollins on tenor saxophone and Fats Navarro on trumpet. Let’s talk about how that material functions within the larger structure of the presentation, and how it served as the backbone for your original orchestrations.

That quintet material is the only music Bud wrote for horns. It was incredibly hard music, and you can really hear them struggling, as great as these guys are—Fats Navarro, Sonny Rollins, Roy Haynes and Tommy Potter. It’s a pretty challenging session for everybody, except for maybe Bud. I would say Bud really knows what he wants, and he sounds like that as a player. But it was important to me in this project to treat that with reverence: to be like, we don’t actually need to expand on that quintet music; we just should try to play it right.

What are some of the more significant contributions to modern jazz piano that come out of Powell?

The number one bebop genius in terms of the improvised line is Charlie Parker. You even could say he gave us bebop, although other people were involved: Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach and Thelonious Monk. But I would say after Bird, the person with the most utterly devastating bebop line, as an improviser, is Bud Powell. And he’s sort of unapproachable. He’s very influential, but he’s also up on a summit.

Of course, many people love their Bud Powell. A partial list would include Barry Harris, Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones, Sonny Clark, Cedar Walton, Red Garland, Wynton Kelly, then finally to Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner. All these musicians, you know, would bow down to Bud as being “the source.”

I read something you posted online about how, in Powell’s music, momentary imperfections are part of a deliberately unpolished aesthetic.

I think anyone who can play jazz at a pretty high level understands what I mean about a certain imperfection being part of a “secret sauce,” especially in Bud’s work. Not everyone would agree; Oscar Peterson famously said that Bud just played too many wrong notes. He was really critical of Bud as a player, which I think is not right. In Umbria, I actually cut a rehearsal because I thought it was sounding so good. And I thought there was no reason to try to force a final level of perfection into it. I thought, “Let’s roll.” The results were good. And the musicians love you when you cut a rehearsal.

What was your impression of that orchestra? I understand they’re somewhat of a regular group for various commission projects Umbria has presented in recent years.

I think there’s something about Italians and bebop that really fit. It’s dangerous to be too stereotypical because there are great musicians everywhere. But if you want to talk about playing some actual bebop, I think the country of Italy has a legacy of that.

You’ve noted that two of Powell’s most distinctive attributes are the vocal quality of his improvised lines and the complexity of his rhythms. Do you feel you were able to convey that in Umbria?

It’s not on the album because of a copyright issue, but part of the official [staging] of my arrangement of “Bud Powell In The 21st Century” is that we play a tape of Bud scat-singing, which would then bleed into the French horn feature of “I’ll Keep Loving You.” I wanted to include the sound of Bud scatting because it’s incredible, and it does clarify certain attributes of the music. We tend to think of bebop as a strictly instrumental music, but it’s also a vocal music. It’s also the blues. It’s all of that folkloric information that’s so crucial to getting it right. Lewis Nash is an incredible singer. He sings the blues, scats bebop, and he plays the drums that way, too. He has all these accents, and he shapes the line in a way that’s very deep. It’s very important for good bop to have that.

I think that as great as Bud Powell is, he is essentially underrated. And this project is a way to at least put his name on the cover and be like, “Man, think about Bud Powell.” And that part, I’m proud of. I can’t remember who said this, but someone compared him to Monk and pointed out that Monk played his tunes over and over again, so everybody knows his tunes. All of Bud’s great tunes, he played once. I think “Tempus Fugit” is a masterpiece. “Celia” is a masterpiece. He only recorded them both once. As far as I know, he didn’t even play them on gigs. So that’s part of the reason his compositions aren’t as well known. He just didn’t play them in public that often. They’re also very, very hard. And I think in the ’50s and ’60s, even high-level jazz musicians didn’t always play them right. They’re very hard to learn. It’s not just [dealing with] continuity. It’s discontinuity. It comes from every angle.

What did the other members of your core quintet bring to this project?

Ben Street is my man. I’ve hired him for almost all of my projects where I explore legacy music or legacy musicians. We played with Billy Hart; we played with “Tootie” Heath. He’s on the record I released in 2019 with Tom Harrell [Common Practice, ECM]. He’s someone who shows the way of how to be fresh and play yourself despite honoring the tradition. Someone like Ben, he doesn’t say you have to play it like the record; he wants to play like it’s 2020. But he also has done his homework. He’s like, “OK, I’m really going to learn the tradition, but I’m really going to play it in a personal fashion.”

Big band trumpet requires a certain personality. I heard Darcy James Argue’s big band years ago, and Ingrid Jensen was playing. I was just blown away. I always liked her playing, but in the context of a big band, I was just like, Wow, she sounds really smoking. She’s playing these hard parts, then she steps up and takes a solo. At that point, I thought, if I ever wrote big band music, and I needed a trumpet soloist, I should get Ingrid.

Dayna Stevens is a brilliant young voice on tenor. There are so many great tenor players, but Dayna stands out. He’s personal. He’s got some cheeky kind of surrealism in there. He’s playful, but he’s also a virtuoso.

Let’s talk about the original pieces you contributed.

When you do a repertory project, I think it’s good to start with original material somehow. We can’t do karaoke. We can’t sit there and just play Bud Powell; it doesn’t work. You’ve got to stamp it with something “today.”

I saw Jason Moran and The Bandwagon, with bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits, play their Fats Waller project. When those guys play Fats Waller, it’s so fresh. You can’t even call it a repertory project, it’s just so exciting. But I would say that almost nothing comes from nowhere. There’s always a genre; there’s always a container. Some people like to say, “There are no references in my music. It’s totally original.” But that’s rarely true. Any single phrase you can play on any instrument comes with a heritage. So, in the postmodern era, it’s just about understanding what that heritage is, and then controlling it in a good way.

Regarding the chorale that opens my piece “Bud Powell In The 21st Century,” I think Bud would recognize those harmonies. They’re a little crunchy. There’s something crunchy in Bud’s piano and Thelonious Monk’s piano voicings that I love, and so the first thing I do is I present a chorale that’s crunchy as all get-out. And then there’s the continuity. In Part 2 of that piece, I play some of Bud’s famous solo on “Cherokee,” but there’s a new bass line, and there’s something about the harmony that’s a little different. It’s refracted into something else, but it wouldn’t exist without Bud’s phenomenal blowing on “Cherokee.”

Do the “Five Simple Spells” borrow from any other Powell pieces?

Yeah. Usually, there’s a gesture from one of his quintet pieces [from 1949] that got me going in the composition. In fact, the very first “spell” is kind of based on one of the chords from Powell’s composition “Glass Enclosure.” Originally, we planned to play “Glass Enclosure,” but then we ended up with almost too much music. So we cut “Glass Enclosure,” but an echo of it remains in the first of the “spells.” They all have one little idea pilfered from Bud that served as a place to start. Live, it’s quite effective because the band plays these chorales without the quintet, and then we play the original quintet music. So it’s sort of like there’s a little volley back and forth: two minutes of chorale, three minutes of Bud. I’m happy with the record, but live it really worked. It was fun theatrically that way, too.

What are some other examples of ways you incorporated bits of Bud into this project?

We played Bud’s solo on “Celia,” which is a masterpiece, as a saxophone-section soli. And you know, there is a tradition of bebop big band, which would include Gillespie and Gil Fuller, and then Thad Jones. And I like it. But it’s not really my central aesthetic issue. I would say that I love small-group bebop, which is one reason I wrote those “Simple Spells” to intersperse with the quintet, because I didn’t want to have an hour of thick, notey, big band charts. I would say my arrangement of “Tempus Fugit” is my one concession to the Gil Fuller tradition. You needed to have it in there. It’s very beautiful. You’ve got to have one. But almost everything else is normal big band music.

I really love Carla Bley and what she did for Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra. And I love Stravinsky and his arrangements of older songs and classical music. And those two were people I thought about, like, How would Carla Bley arrange this? I would think that because it’s simpler, it’s more transparent. And it can be far more provocative. Because sometimes that modern big band style, with a lot of notes and all those bebop harmonies and screaming trumpets—it all sounds the same to me after a while. There’s something I like about clarity; I want things to be very, very clear.

The first arrangement I wrote, I actually threw away. I wrote a big, long arrangement of “John’s Abbey” that had counterpoint and Thad Jones types of voicings and all this stuff. It went on for pages. It was like 10 minutes of big band charts from that world. And I sort of came to my senses: “Don’t do this. Get it out of your system, but don’t do this.” I threw it away and made sure that everything I wrote had that kind of directness I really appreciate in the music I really love.

It’s the easiest thing in the world when you’re writing for all those instruments to make it very thick all the time. It becomes a real etude at some point. So when I talk about Bud Powell’s vocal quality—that’s what we need. We need the blues, we need vocal quality, we need simplicity. I once heard Ornette Coleman talking about his ideal orchestra: that you could hear every single person in the band while they were playing. You could hear their personality.

And that’s much more my world. That’s like Carla Bley, when she writes for the Liberation Music Orchestra. If you listen carefully, you can hear everybody playing their parts. The same thing with Duke Ellington’s band. I’m not saying I got there with Bud Powell In The 21st Century, but I was trying for that. There’s nothing particularly unique in what I wrote for the band in terms of standard instrument combinations. It’s all sort of like Duke Ellington or Count Basie. But there are certain intervals that are my thing, and they’re in this music.

Many musicians, including Mark Turner, have mentioned your touch at the keyboard as being something that distinguishes your sound. Is there anything about Powell’s touch that you’ve incorporated into your playing?

I’m still working on my touch, and I was actually practicing with some Bud this morning. I’ve got a long way to go. But there’s something quite similar in the sonority between Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. Monk is a primary influence for me. For many of my contemporaries, Bill Evans was a real touchstone in terms of how to make the piano sound. And for me, that isn’t what I thought about. I want to make the piano sound like Thelonious Monk. And that is perhaps closer to Bud. It’s different, but Monk is a closer starting point to Bud than Bill Evans or someone like that.

Will you be performing the Powell project in the future?

Absolutely. It has already been played once at New England Conservatory. The college band played it great, and I’m booked to do it in Washington, D.C., when we’re back up and running. [Saxophonist] Brad Linde has a big band in D.C. and in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, and I’m supposed to do it with him. I would love to play it with college bands all over the country. It’s not so hard that it can’t be played. So it certainly would have a future.

Tell me about your work on choreographer Mark Morris’ hit production Pepperland.

I’ve had a very blessed life. One of the reasons is that in my 20s, I wasn’t really playing jazz professionally yet. But I was doing other stuff in New York to get by. And I ended up in front of Mark Morris, which led to me playing for Mark and then becoming his music director for five years. He’s one of the top choreographers of all time, so it was a profound lesson in the larger world of the arts. That opened me up to see the larger world of the arts, and communication, and the American spectrum of high to low, stuff that’s very advanced and intellectual, and stuff that’s sort of down-and-dirty and guttural. A lot of the best American art lives in the direct intersection of those things: high and low. And Mark is the master of it. Getting to apprentice with him was of incalculable value.

Then, like a miracle, the minute I left The Bad Plus, I got a commission from Mark to do this Beatles project in England celebrating 50 years of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band. It was a huge hit in England and got rave reviews everywhere. And we put it on tour all over the world. We’ve done it probably 70 or 80 times at this point.

Which Beatles tunes are heard in the show?

“Sgt. Pepper’s,” “With A Little Help From My Friends,” “Within You Without You,” “When I’m Sixty-Four” and “A Day In The Life.” We add a sixth Beatles song, “Penny Lane,” that’s not from the album, but [it was recorded around the same time]. But it’s an evening-length piece. So, how do you make an evening-length dance piece from these six short Beatles songs? I wrote this extended fantasia with different movements that, sort of like the Bud Powell “Simple Spells,” have a tiny little piece of a Beatles tune that got me going. And then I wrote the rest of it. The band is great, including some Brooklyn jazz all-stars like [soprano saxophonist] Sam Newsome, [trombonist] Jacob Garchik, [theremin specialist] Rob Schwimmer and [drummer] Vinnie Sperrazza.

The wild card was Schwimmer on theramin. He plays the melody on “A Day In The Life.” It’s sort of like the climax of the show, and there isn’t a dry eye in the house. I gotta tell you, people lose their minds. It’s so beautiful. And then, it’s soprano sax and trombone. I love Steve Lacy and Roswell Rudd, and that’s what my idea is: Let’s put Steve and Roswell in the pit with Sam Newsome and Jacob Garchik. We’ve got Colin Fowler on second keyboard; he’s Mark’s music director. And then the excellent singer Clinton Curtis. So it’s eight of us altogether. There’s no bass, which is kind of weird, except that I want to keep it in more of a musical-theater zone. If you have bass, then it’s time to rock out. So often, rock revival things rock out harder and harder. The Pepperland music is quite delicate, more like European chamber music. We’re supposed to play it again the minute we can.

You started an epic run with The Bad Plus in 2000, and now you find yourself in the early stages of an entirely new chapter. When do you feel that the real Ethan Iverson took shape?

Even when I when I was a teenager, I was always aiming for 50. And, actually, I still feel like I’m pretty much on track. I’ve got two more years to really dial this in. And then I’ll be good to go.

Where are you heading now, in terms of reaching an artistic goal?

Well, it must be about synthesis, because I do really care about these different things. I really care about Bud Powell. I really care about Stravinsky. I really care about Burt Bacharach. I really care about TV themes. I really care about the avant-garde compositions of Ralph Shapey. But now that we’re in the postmodern era, where everybody draws from all these traditions, the question is: How deep do you know each stream? I guess I’m trying to get a passing grade in all of these different elements so that I can control them confidently from my position as curator of the aesthetic, drawing on all these different things. I would never have the wisdom of the elders in any one language, but at least I get a passing grade in it.

Do you have any predictions for what’s going to happen in the world of the arts and the role the arts will play in post-pandemic society?

The only thing I can say is, once you don’t have anything, once you don’t have what you had, you might realize how valuable it was. So it’s up to the musicians and the painters and the poets and everybody to make art that reaches people and makes them demand it.

And if you’re in the world of jazz, you’ve got to make music that makes people feel like, “I need more of that music.” Everybody was going along at a certain speed before the pandemic. I think there’s a possibility that given a new start, some musicians or artists or painters will have a new way of lighting a fire that everyone will get warmed by. DB



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