Ethan Iverson: At the Crossroads of Jazz and Classical Music


Pianist Ethan Iverson collaborates with saxophonist Mark Turner on Temporary Kings.

(Photo: Robert Lewis)

Given Iverson’s history in academia, it’s somewhat ironic that he currently has a teaching position at NEC. Before he was offered the job, the school had invited Iverson to give a lecture on stride piano, during which he interspersed his own playing with recordings by artists like Mary Lou Williams, James P. Johnson and Art Tatum.

“I talked about the base of the music, stuff that was very old,” Iverson recalled. “There’s a way of talking about jazz piano where you start with Bill Evans and everything that happened after that. But when I was in my late teens and early 20s, what set me apart from my peers was my interest in early jazz. To some people, this is just corny music and why do that? But people like Earl Hines had such technical competence with the sheer number of notes he was shoveling around on the instrument that was actually greater than most modern pianists. Plus, they could play for dances. How many modern jazz pianists can sit and play for a dance?”

Iverson meets seven times with seven students each semester. “It’s a real joy to see people improve when they do stuff I tell them to,” he said. “That’s a unique pleasure I never had before. I teach them that jazz is a blend of two traditions: European harmony and African rhythm. There are other factors, but that’s the basic mix. The European harmony comes naturally to piano players, but the African side is harder to talk about.”

When Iverson was scrounging gigs in New York in the ’90s, he became associated with Mark Morris, who brought him aboard as the musical director for his dance troupe. Morris is humorously frank in talking about his first experiences with Iverson when he was in his twenties: “Ethan was clueless and completely out of his realm. He played well, but was green. He showed up with enthusiasm, but he wasn’t very sophisticated. ... But he was very open-minded.” Iverson spent five years with Morris, frequently on the road. He learned a phenomenal amount about classical music, but many of his tasks were functional, not creative.

“It was stuff that needed to happen,” the pianist said. “Mark is the perfect example of using a mixture of high and low art. It hits you in your gut, as well as your brain.”

As he was closing in on 30, Iverson realized he had to devote himself to playing jazz again. “I told Mark, I love you, but I’ve got to go,” he said. “As if I had arranged it, within a month The Bad Plus hit, played the Village Vanguard and got a record deal with Columbia. Without that mix of high and low art I learned from Mark, I don’t think I could have played The Bad Plus music.”

After Iverson left Morris’ employ, the two continued their friendship, with the choreographer marveling at shows he saw Iverson perform in various settings, including a tango band and a solo piece, “Easy Win,” for John Heginbotham’s Dance Heginbotham troupe. Morris also became a big Bad Plus fan and collaborated with the musicians on dance projects, including “Spring, Spring, Spring,” which involved the trio interpreting Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring.

Now, Iverson has returned to Morris collaboration mode, this time with the choreographer and pianist creating a 50th anniversary celebration of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band called Pepperland. Iverson wrote the score, which includes his arrangements of six Beatles songs, as well as six originals inspired by Lennon and McCartney’s work. “It’s blowing everyone’s mind,” Iverson said, “especially the Theremin version of ‘A Day In The Life.’”

Morris is pleased: “The music is complicated, subtle and jarring, rhythmically and sonically. Ethan is fascinating and smart, and a good friend.”

Iverson will be busy this fall, as a duo tour with Turner will take the musicians to Chicago (Sept. 15), New York (Sept. 18), Los Angeles (Oct. 12) and Seattle’s Earshot Jazz Festival (Oct. 15). Pepperland—which has its own music ensemble—will be staged at performing arts centers for the foreseeable future. “We’re booked for the next five years, which I like,” Iverson said. “It’s an anchor, so that I can explore more.”

Pepperland also gives him a steady source of revenue. After he cut ties with The Bad Plus, Iverson was wondering what would come next. But post-trio, he has been quite active. “Now, I have so much more air around my head to make the music I want to make,” he said. “It’s been freeing and exciting, because there are limitless possibilities.”

One product of that freedom is his three-part classical composition Concerto To Scale, which he debuted this spring with the American Composers Orchestra at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall. “For my first symphonic work, I didn’t want it to be too serious,” he said. “A lot of these crossover-type pieces collapse under the weight of trying to do too much. And some jazz composers may ask the orchestra to swing. I know better.”

When Iverson presented the slightly humorous piece, one of the few jazz elements was having the bass drummer double his left hand for the syncopation. The orchestra played some Mozart-like material and then Iverson played a stretch of ragtime with the orchestra doing what he said is “a freak improv from the Charles Ives tradition.”

“I like being a little goofy,” Iverson said. “I think The Bad Plus got more serious through the years. We started out punkishly goofy, but as we matured, Reid [Anderson] and Dave [King] wanted to dial that back. But you listen to music by Sonny Rollins, Paul Bley, Ornette Coleman, and they’re all telling jokes in their music.”

On the horizon, Iverson will be curating two projects. For three days in November at the EFG London Jazz Festival, he’ll oversee a history of British jazz; an overview of modern improvising artists, such as Kenny Wheeler, John Surman, John Taylor and Django Bates; then an avant-garde conduction, based on the English Baroque music of Henry Purcell. At the end of the year at Umbria Jazz’s Orvieto festival, Iverson will debut his 75-minute suite, based on Bud Powell’s music, with new compositions for jazz orchestra.

Hart marvels at the breadth of Iverson’s work. “It’s Ethan’s positive vision that he brings to everything,” he said. “He has a way to make these visions materialize. He has an instinct that is extremely unique. Even in my band, he puts things into motion. He’s an arranger of the highest order, and an innovator who is on a quest.”

Iverson appreciates the accolades, yet pushes forward to find his voice. “There are so many things I’ve just scratched the surface on that I’m ready to get into,” he said. “One of my idols is Paul Motian [1931–2011]. His music didn’t get truly personal till he was in his late forties. No one thinks about the early records of Paul’s career, but he kept figuring out the blending of European and African traditions to make great records later in his life. That inspires me. I’m 45 and have been a part of a very successful band that played on the biggest stages of jazz. But as for what’s next, I feel like I’ve accumulated a lot information to sift through to use to present the real Ethan Iverson.” DB

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