Scratching the Itch: An Interview With Ethan Iverson
Ethan Iverson is the de facto front man for The Bad Plus. The piano trio doesn't really have a leader, but Iverson is the pianist, the one who talks between songs at their concerts, and the one who communicates most prolifically with the jazz audience via his blog Do The Math. Where The Bad Plus has separated itself a bit from the conventional jazz spectrum, Iverson the blogger embraces it, providing a depth of discussion and critique on everyone from Oscar Peterson to the AACM. Ahead of his performance Sunday night at the Atlas Theater—where he's playing standards as part of a mini-tour of D.C. and Philadelphia withD.C. natives Corcoran Holt on bass and Steve Williams on drums—Iverson spoke to Arts Desk about the playing music as himself versus with The Bad Plus, being a jazz blogger, and his connections with D.C.'s jazz lineage.
Washington City Paper: Why the "mini-tour," first of all?
Ethan Iverson: For a while I've been playing at [Manhattan jazz club] Small's with some great rhythm sections, just to play tunes. It's a real privilege and honor to be out with The Bad Plus; for the past 10 or 11 years we've been doing about 150 gigs a year, or even more, of our original music, and there's part of me that likes to scratch the itch of playing tunes once in a while. In addition, there's lots of older musicians that I like to take a lesson with on the bandstand. So, for example, Tootie Heath has played with me; I've gotten Ben Riley and Buster Williams to play with me; as well as some peers. Corcoran is about my age, maybe a little bit younger, and I really enjoy playing with him and asked him to recommend somebody. He recommended Steve Williams.
It's gonna be an informal gig, in the sense that I'm not really preparing any music and we're not gonna rehearse. There's just a certain magic that comes from just getting up there and seeing what happens. That's what this mini-tour is about.
WCP: When you play these gigs in Small's, are those standards too? Or are you playing your own music?
EI: Standards, absolutely. I get what I need in terms of creative new music with The Bad Plus. And Billy Hart's group, which I also play in, is original music. But I grew up playing the canon, and even though we might play something like "On Green Dolphin Street," I'd be interested in trying to play it my own way from the first second. And with musicians like Corcoran and Steve, and anyone else who's experienced and interested in creative music, you can actually find a really new space within seconds of playing a tune that you all know.
WCP: It's interesting when you talk about playing standards your own way, because The Bad Plus is already so different from your typical standard jazz settings. Are you, for example, as removed from traditional jazz harmony in these trios as The Bad Plus might be?
EI: Well, a good cue for something like this is someone like Thelonious Monk, who's probably my biggest influence when I play standards. You know, compared to the normal jazz language, Monk is coming from a different space, and it's a space I try to inhabit too. I try to have an opinion on everything, and not ever use stock harmony. I have a track record of recording like this: My first recording with Reid [Anderson, The Bad PLys' bassist] was a disc of standards with Jorge Rossy on drums, and we called it "standards deconstructed." That's a pretty good word to think of—of course it would also be a pretty good word to describe a lot of the pop covers we did with The Bad Plus.
I leave lots of space—for this kind of repertoire I'm not interested in that Oscar Peterson, piano-dominant tradition. I'm interested in the Thelonious Monk, Paul Bley tradition where you're always hearing a lot of the band and there's a lot of room for them to play. In fact on this mini-tour I've been trying just to list the names of Ethan, Corcoran, and Steve. Everyone in jazz prefers to call us the Ethan Iverson Trio, but I'm more comfortable just listing the names. And I'm sort of thinking of it as Do the Math Live!
That's the other thing, of course, that this ties into: my interest in jazz history. I know that some people who are interested in The Bad Plus and maybe have heard the music, will sometimes read the blog and say "I really don't see how this connects at all!" So maybe with this trio they'll see a little bit better how it connects.
WCP: It is interesting to see on the blog that you're so fascinated with the canon, when it's not what you are getting up and doing every night with The Bad Plus.
EI: Oh, for sure. Well, I always wanted to get up and play music that had never been heard before, in any form. And when Reid and Dave and I first played—I still remember that first rehearsal, where I was like, "Oh, my God. I never heard this sound before." So that was my dream come true. But also, I'm interested in checking stuff out in history, and it can even be non-musical things. If I like an author, I read every single book and sometimes write about every single book, as I did with the late Donald Westlake. The blog has been wonderful about scratching that itch.
WCP: How does the blog affect your relationship with the jazz scene? Do your colleagues notice the same disparity we've talked about?
EI: I don't think so. Musicians are generally very supportive of Do The Math. Certain musicians I really love have said some really nice things about the blog, and that's meant something to me. I was at the Vanguard last night, seeing some great music: The Bill McHenry Quartet, with Orrin Evans and Eric Revis and Andrew Cyrille. It was so great, and I stayed for both sets. I had a few conversations with musicians I respected, and they talked about the blog and some details of some stuff they'd read, and that was really cool.
WCP: Between this gig with Corcoran and Steve, and your regular New York gig with drummer Billy Hart—who's also a D.C. native—I should ask if you have some particular connection to D.C. musicians or the D.C. jazz tradition?
EI: Oh, I'm sure, because Billy, among all these older cats, he's my guru. I've learned so much from him, and we play together a lot, and we have a record coming out as a group on ECM next year, which I actually think is a really good record—with Mark Turner and Ben Street.
I've heard a lot from Billy about D.C.; he really does come from one of the classic communities, which I talk about a lot on Do The Math because I grew up in Wisconsin and the way I learned about this music was in a very abstract, non-community way. Whereas someone like Billy Hart, he'll tell you that he got in on the drums, and when the cats on the scene decided he was good enough they'd say, "All right, the gig's on Saturday." And that when he was 18 he played for something like a year with a trio, six nights a week, with Butch Warren on bass and a great piano player who's either passed or is a bit incapacitated. But I'm blanking on his name. Reuben?
[Note: Though neither of us could remember at the time, Ethan is referring to D.C. favorite Reuben Brown, who has been out of jazz since suffering a severe stroke about 10 years ago.]
But man, you play with Butch Warren for a year, no wonder you learned how to swing! Growing up in Wisconsin, that shit was just never on the table for us. And that's something we should always be aware of: Where we're coming from, and where they're coming from. Because one thing I don't like is some sort of watered-down that feels like people don't care about it that much. The music really was forged in a crucible; if you grew up in D.C. as a black man in the 1940s, that's a heavy gig!
Andrew White, he's a dude who's on my very long list of people I'd love to sit down and talk to. Whatever they drink in that water back there, in communities like D.C.'s jazz community, that's some special shit. You don't get it any other way than by being there and paying the dues.