Iverson Highlights Baritone Power at New York’s Smalls


Ethan Iverson (seen here in a press photo) performed with trademark power and accuracy at Smalls Jazz Club in New York on March 19

(Photo: Courtesy of the artist)

Right from the outset, the presence of a baritone saxophone as this combo’s dominant horn did much to imprint a strong feeling of individuality to the Ethan Iverson Quartet’s late-night session at Smalls on March 18.

This basement club in New York City’s Greenwich Village is one of the prime haunts for jazz acolytes, curious tourists, musicians and casual observers alike.

Nowadays, it seems that the club feels is reaching critical mass, with a surging flow of attendees frequently leading to a “House Full” sign at the top of the stairs. Perhaps this is due to Smalls’ excellent atmosphere and informal setting, with a concentration on music and drinking (but no food served, and therefore no tables).

One of the most hardcore regulars at Smalls is pianist Ethan Iverson, one third of famed trio The Bad Plus, and a noted jazz omnivore. His own quartet is a vehicle for more traditional manifestations of the music, and its performance on this night was a distinct demonstration of power and accuracy.

Iverson’s frontline partner in the night’s proceedings was saxophonist Dayna Stephens, and the lineup was completed by bassist David “Happy” Williams and drummer Eric McPherson.

Stephens played tenor on the first few numbers, but soon graduated to the baritone sax for the bulk of the two sets. At this point, the sound of the band was completely transformed, its bassy reaches delving into denser, deeper regions.

Cedar Walton’s “Firm Roots” was a standout, with Iverson’s quicksilver splashes attaining an almost ragtime state. McPherson’s sticks skittered and skipped around his leader’s dancing flow. Stephens, on baritone, sounded tougher and lower than ever.

Iverson’s solo here initially suggested a bluesy improvisation, but ventured into a characteristically wayward direction, accruing touches of Monk and frissons of gospel.

As a soloist, Stephens made skips and jumps in his phrasing—boldly repeating, trilling and fluttering his lines. All the while, he had his eyes on the audience, darting from side-to-side, taking note of their responses, and doubtless letting these guide the path of his musical declamations.

Meanwhile, Iverson made space between his faster clusters, enunciating carefully, while Williams engaged in subtle interplay with McPherson. At one point, Iverson sat casually side-saddle on his bench, embellishing a baritone solo with a strategic sparseness.

This quartet aspect of Iverson’s playing was completely different to that heard with The Bad Plus. Here, he was nestled firmly within the jazz lineage. As the second set peaked, the pace became frenetic, with Stephens gushing on tenor, a drum solo arriving close to the finish, with McPherson making a masterfully slow build-up of rotary dexterity.

At Smalls, the concerts are streamed and recorded for posterity on the SmallsLive website, a revolutionary subscription initiative that’s steadily documenting every single gig, as well as remunerating the artists from a collective, mathematically-divided pool.

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