Ethan Iverson/Lee Konitz/Larry Grenadier/Jorge Rossy Costumes Are Mandatory
By David R. Adler
The smartest thing a younger jazz player can do is to seek wisdom from established masters of the music. Pianist Ethan Iverson has done this again and again, gigging with the likes of Charlie Haden, Paul Motian, Albert “Tootie” Heath and Billy Hart. On Costumes Are Mandatory he joins alto saxophone great Lee Konitz in a session full of idiosyncrasy and varied repertoire, from “What’s New” to “Try a Little Tenderness” to “317 East 32nd Street,” the Lennie Tristano classic (miscredited to Konitz on the back sleeve, though not in Iverson’s liner notes).
Bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jorge Rossy, who worked together for years in Brad Mehldau’s trio, provide just the right feel — relaxed but deeply swinging. If anything Grenadier is more the timekeeper, while Rossy blurs and deepens the textures. Grenadier’s bowing on the abstract piano-bass duet “Mr. Bumi” (named for pianist Masabumi Kikuchi) is especially strong.
The spirit of Tristano, Konitz’s old teacher, hovers over the set. Iverson alludes to some of Tristano’s distinctive practices: using a metronome on the piano-drum duet “Bats,” overdubbing or tweaking the piano sounds on “It’s You (Tempo Complex)” and “My New Lovers All Seem So Tame” (the latter a short prelude to “My Old Flame,” on which Konitz scat-sings). The turbulent piano trio showcase “A Distant Bell” — based on “I Remember You” — also builds on Tristano’s (and Konitz’s) discipline of using standards as groundwork for new inventions.
Konitz remains warm and inescapably melodic on the horn, though he bows out on a number of tracks. He sails smoothly on “Blueberry Ice Cream,” Iverson’s hip midtempo blues in A, played in two takes that start and close the album. His duet with Grenadier on “Body and Soul” stands out as well — hard to believe Coleman Hawkins recorded his historic version two days before Konitz’s 12th birthday. There’s a logic and unhurried pace to Konitz’s phrases and the band’s outlook as a whole, a sense of old musical values underneath a commitment to the experimental.
It’s clear right away that pianist Fred Hersch’s “My Coma Dreams” is not a typical concert experience. Hersch premiered the “jazz theater” piece in New Jersey in 2011; the new production at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre (March 2) was altered but substantially similar. Narrator-vocalist Michael Winther portrayed both Hersch and his partner, Scott Morgan, describing the composer’s near-death experience from complications of AIDS. When he sang, Winther brought us inside the dream world that Hersch inhabited while unconscious for six weeks. Hersch played with a calm and luminous authority, fronting a midsized ensemble of reeds, brass, strings and rhythm conducted by Gregg Kallor (with standout solos from tenorist Adam Kolker, altoist Bruce Williamson and trumpeter Ralph Alessi). The music floated largely free of genre, although bassist John Hébert and drummer John Hollenbeck ensured that it swung when needed on episodes such as “Dream of Monk” and “Jazz Diner.” Winther was drowned out a couple of times by the band — something that didn’t happen at the premiere — but otherwise the sound was pristine. Hersch’s solitary piano on “The Boy” and Joyce Hammann’s viola feature on “Brussels” were simply stunning. In detailing a medical trauma, the show arrived at moving insights on life, love and the human condition. One haunting line in “The Knitters” took on multiple meanings as it was repeated: “We end as we begin.” (David R. Adler)
From the loopy, elliptical way that drummer Billy Hart addressed the second-set crowd at Dizzy’s (March 14), it was easy to see how at home he feels with the members of his working quartet — tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, pianist Ethan Iverson and bassist Ben Street. Continuing in the exploratory vein of All Our Reasons, the band’s extraordinary 2012 debut for ECM, Hart shifted his focus to new music — some of which could appear on a follow-up for ECM in the works. “Yard,” based on the Charlie Parker blues “Cheryl,” was wide open harmonically (after his venturesome turn, Iverson got off the bench and let Turner solo without chords). Hart’s “Amethyst,” radically reworked from its early ’90s origins, grew from slow atmospheric rubato to raging dissonance, at last falling into tempo for an elegant written theme and finish. “Motional,” another earlier Hart composition, took on an easygoing Caribbean lilt, while Iverson’s “Neon,” from the 2006 HighNote release Quartet, closed the set in a 12/8 feel full of urgency and tension. Turner and Iverson showed a fearsome rapport on the pianist’s “Big Trees,” trading full choruses on rhythm changes, mostly without bass. Turner’s contribution, the lyrical midtempo swinger “Sonnet for Stevie” — “dig that,” remarked Hart when he said the title — highlighted the leader’s ability to reorient the conversation with a perfectly placed accent, a drop in ride cymbal volume, just the right thing in the moment. The time ebbed and flowed but never wavered. (DA)
Having endured as a working band for nearly a decade and a half, The Bad Plus doesn’t lack for material. The first Sunday set at the Village Vanguard (Jan. 6) featured pieces from the trio’s latest Made Possible but also others stretching back to Give (2004) and Suspicious Activity? (2005). It’s a repertoire of great distinction, and all of it in this set was original, with each of the bandmates (pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson, drummer Dave King) contributing tunes. No deconstructed rock-pop-disco-electronica covers for now — but note that originals have made up the bulk of the band’s work from the start. Iverson’s “Mint” led it off, stormy and rubato, pushing toward chaos and yet unmistakably precise. King’s “Wolf Out” followed with insistent polyrhythm and faster, higher precision — a strong example of the band’s willingness to foreground composition entirely, leaving improv temporarily to the side. Yet there were solos as well, and powerful ones: King’s commanding statements toward the end of Anderson’s “You Are” and Iverson’s “Reelect That” brought the energy in the house to a high. The playing was extraordinary, the musical language inimitable: melodically pure and pop-like, “swinging” in the broad sense, at times as dense and intricate as the most modern chamber group. Anderson took to the role of banterer between tunes, winding the audience up in deadpan fashion with tales of body sprays, science fair volcanoes and a tabla-playing E.T. (David R. Adler)
Pianist Gerald Clayton told his audience at Smalls (Jan. 9) that he had to “work up the courage” to call tenor saxophonist Mark Turner when putting together the band. It was Clayton’s first gig there in some time, and the quartet, with Turner, bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Obed Calvaire, offered something different from Clayton’s celebrated working trio. They started simply, with the midtempo Charlie Parker blues “Relaxin’ at Camarillo” serving as a launch pad into space. No matter how far they stretched, however, they swung, and Brewer maybe most of all: his solos held the room rapt with their rhythmic authority, lithe technique and pure soul, especially on “Under Mad Hatter Medicinal Group On,” Clayton’s homage to Billy Strayhorn’s “U.M.M.G.” Calvaire brought something indispensable to Dizzy Gillespie’s “Con Alma,” maintaining a tight, staccato triplet feel and using every percussive detail of the drum kit. With “Vibe Quota,” the set ended in a quieter way: first came the bass/tenor unison theme in a low register, then contemplative tenor and piano solos, then a brighter vamp with a smoking drum sendoff from Calvaire. Turner seemed the most cerebral and restrained of the group, but the fact that he projected plenty of sound, with no mic, in front of a rhythm section as driving as this was remarkable. His compositional voice was also in the mix: the second set opened with an intriguing, uncommonly slow interpretation of “Myron’s World.” (DA)
Soon after my first post on Randy Sandke’s book Where the Dark and the Light Folks Meet, Ethan Iverson posted a far more detailed two-part critique (here and here) at Do the Math. As always with Ethan, it’s a must-read. He’s also announced that he’ll be publishing a guest post by Sandke in reply.
At the risk of spending too much time on this, I want to note another instance of misleading quotation from Sandke, because it’s indicative of his bias throughout. Once again the subject is Bix Beiderbecke, on page 101:
Beiderbecke’s reputation has indeed suffered during the current era of political correctness. Stanley Crouch feels that “Bix is not worthy of inclusion in the pantheon.” Ben Ratliff, jazz critic for the New York Times, stated that Beiderbecke “could swing a bit,” but “there is little funk in Bix’s style.” Also in the New York Times, Rob Gibson, then the director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, wrote: “The great white historians can’t understand why Bix Beiderbecke and Benny Goodman aren’t in there [JALC concert programs]. My point is, what did they write?”
The Crouch quote is footnoted “Conversation between Stanley Crouch and the author, 1994,” so we can only take Sandke’s word for it. The Ratliff quotes are from Jazz: A Critic’s Guide to the 100 Most Important Recordings (2002) — and the book title already makes clear that Ratliff seeks to include Beiderbecke in the pantheon, not banish him as Sandke implies.
Why was Beiderbecke so much more important [than Frank Trumbauer]? Because the 1920s were an age for trumpets, not saxophones; because he was a multi-instrumental (piano as well as cornet) talent; because he could swing a bit, whereas Trumbauer’s notes didn’t have that rhythmic orientation….
And toward the end of the next paragraph, after Ratliff has praised Bix’s “pure, consistent beauty”:
There is little funk in Bix’s style (listen to his long solo in “I’m Coming, Virginia” and imagine how differently, with how much more vigor, Armstrong would have phrased it), but there is a coherent lyricism.
Some points to argue with, perhaps. But is this evidence of “political correctness,” of Ratliff’s desire to write Bix out of the canon? The charge is utterly without foundation. What’s more, “little funk in Bix’s style” is meant solely as a contrast with Armstrong, and one that many would agree is well-founded.
Earlier in his Beiderbecke section, Ratliff gives examples of black musicians (Benny Carter, Rex Stewart, Johnny Hodges, others) who unashamedly claimed white musicians — specifically Bix and Trumbauer — as influences. Then Ratliff observes:
In fact, Trumbauer was actually part Indian. But that’s the least of the issue’s complexities. Jazz is primarily a black American music. Yet all jazz musicians, especially in the early days, were hungry to use anything at their disposal. [...] Black and white were not always in conflict in America at the time — and especially not in jazz….
Whoa, hold on. “Black and white were not always in conflict” — this is one of the main arguments of Sandke’s book. Yet here we have Ben Ratliff, chided by Sandke as just another politically correct, ideology-driven jazz critic, making precisely Sandke’s point — the very point that critics supposedly go out of their way to obscure. Better, Ratliff says this in the very section of his book from which Sandke is quoting. Of course, Sandke doesn’t quote that part.
As for Rob Gibson’s comment, no, he didn’t write it in The New York Times — as Sandke’s footnote makes clear, he was quoted in the Times by Theodore Rosengarten back in 1997:
“The great white historians of jazz can’t understand why Bix Beiderbecke and Benny Goodman can’t be in there,” [Gibson] said. “My point is, what did they write? Bix Beiderbecke was great, but he wasn’t greater than Louis Armstrong. Benny Goodman was a great clarinetist, and if he was alive he would be playing clarinet in our orchestra. The fact is, he didn’t write any music….”
Beiderbecke did write music, and it was sloppy of Gibson to omit that fact. However, this quote occurs right below Rosengarten’s claim “that commissions to write new works have not gone to whites since [Jazz at Lincoln Center] began in 1987.” Note the correction appended at the bottom, stating that Rosengarten “referred incorrectly to commissions by the Jazz at Lincoln Center program since its beginning in 1987. Eight works — not none — have been commissioned from white musicians.” Oops. So Gibson’s quote might have been sloppy, but Rosengarten’s framing of the quote was even sloppier. Once again, you wouldn’t know any of this from Sandke’s account.