Former Bad Plus pianist still ‘loves playing in the Midwest’ despite rocketing career
So much for slowing down.
After he left the jazz world’s busiest touring group, the Bad Plus, at the end of 2017, pianist Ethan Iverson thought his life would get less hectic. Wrong.
“This year I’ve been just as busy. I’m going to Europe five times with different groups,” he pointed out.
Plus, he’s teaching at the New England Conservatory, writing about jazz for the New Yorker, serving as musical director for the Mark Morris Dance Group, curating two European jazz festivals, composing a concerto, writing big-band arrangements, interviewing jazz luminaries for his popular blog, forming his own quartet and touring to promote his new duo album with tenor saxophonist Mark Turner.
The album, “Temporary Kings,” was released last week to rave reviews, and Iverson was the subject of a major profile in Downbeat magazine. He and Turner have hit the road, with a two-night stand at Crooners in Fridley beginning Sunday.
“A lot of times we [musicians] play in situations with drums and high energy. With a duo, it’s spacious and sort of like chamber music,” Iverson said. “We play the blues and swinging jazz. But the emphasis is on listening and thoughtful interaction.”
One of the album’s highlights, the lonely blues “Unclaimed Freight,” was inspired by a sign Iverson spotted on a building in rural northern Minnesota.
“I was driving with some relatives and on an otherwise completely undeveloped road, we came across a huge warehouse with a gigantic sign ‘Unclaimed Freight,’ ” Iverson remembered, “and I thought that’s the title of the blues if there ever was one.”
“If you go up [Interstate] 35 and at Black Bear Casino take a left, it was out there somewhere,” he recalled.
That sounds like directions from someone out there somewhere.
Speaking from his Brooklyn apartment earlier this month, Iverson, 45, had logged four hours of piano practice by lunchtime in preparation for an afternoon rehearsal with the new Ethan Iverson Quartet and its two upcoming New York City gigs.
Iverson, who has been playing piano since seventh grade in Menomonie, Wis., is attracted to music that is “unknowable to him,” observed saxophonist Joshua Redman, who has worked with Iverson.
“The thing about jazz [is] you can really be stumped as to why it’s so great,” Iverson opined. “Great jazz is mysterious music — and I love mystery.”
‘Writing feels just as natural’
Thoughtful, studious and articulate, Iverson is in his third year of teaching seven students for seven days per semester at Boston’s New England Conservatory.
“It’s really gratifying when a student is good and I tell them to do something and they do it and then they get better,” the teacher noted.
He’s an avid student himself of jazz and classical music. He began collecting as a high schooler when he had a piano gig at a restaurant job in Menomonie and spent his entire paychecks on jazz records via mail order or trips to the Electric Fetus in Minneapolis.
Combing through his record collection, he preps diligently for interviews for his blog, for which he has conversed with such jazz stars as Ron Carter, Keith Jarrett, Wynton Marsalis, Jason Moran and Cécile McLorin Salvant.
“They’re people I feel like I can learn from or that I really love,” Iverson said of the interview subjects. “I haven’t interviewed anybody who I wasn’t going to get something out of in a practical sense. It’s not a job. I’m just having fun.”
He started the blog in 2005 — “when blogging felt relevant and hip” — during downtime on tour with the Bad Plus. He wanted to share his love for all kinds of music with this new fan base. He uses the blog, dubbed “Do the Math,” to muse about jazz, European classical music and other topics, particularly crime fiction, which he loves to read.
While he has no formal writing background or training, he says “writing feels just as natural as playing the piano or composing.” Plus, he credits his writer-wife, Sarah Deming, who serves as his de facto editor.
In the past year, Iverson has segued into writing jazz pieces for the New Yorker. In honor of saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s 85th birthday, the pianist wrote in the esteemed magazine about three classic Shorter albums, all released in 1964. Iverson was such an obsessive researcher that he even published outtakes from the New Yorker story on his blog.
Among Iverson’s new projects this year was his three-part classical composition, “Concerto to Scale,” which he premiered last spring at Carnegie Hall with the American Composers Orchestra.
One project keeping Iverson on the road is “Pepperland” with the Morris dance troupe, with which the pianist has been affiliated on and off since the late ’90s. For this dance tribute to the Beatles’ landmark 1967 “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album, Iverson composed a score featuring his arrangements of six Beatles tunes and six originals inspired by the Fab Four. The troupe will take “Pepperland” on tour intermittently for five years, with a week this year at Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
In November, Iverson is curating the London Jazz Festival, with three distinct programs — a history of British jazz; an overview of modern improvising artists, and an avant-garde piece based on British Baroque composer Henry Purcell.
At the Umbria Winter Jazz Festival in Italy in late December, Iverson will premiere an orchestral suite inspired by the work of jazz pianist Bud Powell.
Iverson wouldn’t have had time for all these endeavors if he were still doing 100 gigs a year with Bad Plus. He left the Minnesota-tied trio (the other two members grew up in the Twin Cities) over differences in priorities and artistic direction. He hasn’t heard the ensemble with his replacement, Orrin Evans.
“I’ll let them just do their thing,” Iverson said with no hint of bitterness. “It’s too soon for me to check it out.”
However, the pianist admits that coming to the Twin Cities without the Bad Plus for the first time “will be a little lonely in some ways.” Still, home is home.
“I always love playing in the Midwest whatever the situation is,” he acknowledged. “I like to think there’s something in all the music I make that has something to do with this Minnesota/Wisconsin connection. The audiences there understand that.”
Twitter: @JonBream • 612-673-1719