Friday, September 13, 2019

Crossing the Bridge (a review of Ethan Iverson's "Common Practice")

Note: I listened to this record again as I put the final touches on this piece. As the last track ended, my iTunes moved to a Hank Jones tune, and at first, I was completely disoriented - where was this bonus track the last time I heard Common Practice? I got my bearings, but the confusion - momentary though it was - speaks to the larger message of my review, which is that this record is, at heart, three things: accomplished; pleasurable; and is placing itself not outside a larger timeline looking in, but on that timeline.

I.

In his essay on drummer Donald Bailey, Ethan Iverson admiringly describes Bailey's drumming as having "something intentionally square in the phrasing." Iverson writes, "I love the clunky drummers: Frankie Dunlop, Ed Blackwell, Paul Motian, Tootie Heath, the cats who play some sparse, corny stuff on the snare a bit too loud and look over, daring you to make something of it." Several years ago, Iverson laid out his thesis on jazz drumming in a magnum opus of a blog post; in it, he wrote that "[a] drum set is a version of an African drum choir reduced and streamlined so that a single musician can provide that devotional feel for a larger ensemble. All the greatest American drummers specialize in 'feel.' I am not an expert in this topic, but as a big jazz fan, I know that 'feel' is what makes the music go. Most great jazz needs a great drummer." And, indeed, some of Iverson's best work has been done in a recurring trio with Heath and Ben Street, or in Billy Hart's longtime quartet (1) - two groups where Iverson's spare, purposeful improvisations are complimented by those warmly clunky drum tones.

Iverson is a proponent of a jazz ethos which prioritizes swing. I mean "swing" not simply in the literal, Wynton Marsalis-esque sense, though Iverson can certainly swing with the best, but in a deeper, more figurative sense - perhaps the sense Marsalis (for all his infamous rejections of Ornette Coleman or fusion) meant all along. For Iverson, whatever else jazz might be, it is at its heart the African rhythmic tradition. Lose this, he argues, and an essential aspect of the music is lost as well.

In his writing about jazz, too, Iverson has made it clear that he is the student and black music is the teacher. A trailblazing modernist who is also a "devotional" historicist, and a white musician from Wisconsin who uses his platform to foreground black artists, Iverson seems to embody one way forward in a music which has wrestled with thorny questions of race, power, tradition and authenticity since its birth. (2)

In his epic blog post "The Drum Thing," Iverson writes that
[t]he devotional attitude of African rhythm is one reason it’s so compelling. African rhythm seeks ecstasy through communion, not just with God but with everyone in the immediate vicinity. You don’t practice it. You plug into the ancestors and your reason for living and it’s there.
When Iverson writes of African rhythm, "You don't practice it," he echoes Miles Davis's pronouncement on Oscar Peterson - "He even had to learn how to play the blues." Back in 2008, Iverson wrote an excellent essay about Davis and Peterson where he writes that
the first lesson taught in Jazz Education 101 is the so-called "blues scale,” giving a novice six notes that can be rolled around over any set of blues (or blues-related) changes. When Davis derides someone for “learning” the blues, the image that comes to my mind is a classroom full of student horn players, all honking out the six-note blues scale in any order and rhythm with no emotional connection to any real form of American music…and all now thinking they are playing the blues.
In this quote, Iverson identifies a central piece of jazz playing: an "emotional connection" to a "real form of American music"; Iverson rejects the idea that this emotional connection can be "practiced," or simply invoked through the deployment of a learned scale. In "Oscar Peterson and Miles Davis," as in "The Drum Thing," Iverson returns to the drums:

The drum set could symbolize the African diaspora as interpreted by Americans. Since the invention of bebop in the mid-Forties, small group jazz had been seeking a way to bring the drums (i.e.  the African diaspora) to further prominence in the ensemble.... [I]f Peterson only made records without drums, Davis probably wouldn’t have thought to comment about him in a rhythm section, since you really need the African diaspora to be present to call it a "rhythm section." (3)
II. 

Iverson has been letting African American jazz legends establish this communion with the African diasporic tradition on his records for decades - his 1993 record School Work features Dewey Redman on some tracks, and he's recorded and performed extensively with drummers Billy Hart, Al Foster, and Albert Heath, as well as with elder statesmen Ron Carter, Charles McPherson, and Houston Person, among others. Iverson's interviews, many of which are with older black jazz musicians, also place Iverson in the "devotional" student chair.


The new record features drummer Eric McPherson. When asked about the choice of McPherson in an email, Iverson quickly shifted the emphasis from himself to his bandmates, saying that Ben Street requested McPherson and that "Tom loved the rhythm section." But he also told me that McPherson has "something really 'old' and swinging" in his playing. McPherson (who is named after Eric Dolphy) grew up surrounded by musicians like Richard Davis (his godfather), Max Roach, Elvin Jones, Charles Moffett, and Freddie Waits.

McPherson has also held the drum chair in Fred Hersch's trio for ten years - like that group, Iverson's quartet is an all-white group with a black drummer. In an interview with Iverson, Hersch discusses drummers, drums, and rhythm at length:
EI:  Do you have any recollections of Ed Blackwell?
FH:  Oh I do, he was the most lovely guy, and he was always kind of working on something. Eric McPherson reminds me of him. I come in the dressing room  at the Vanguard, and with his hands or something, Blackwell’s working on some rhythm that he’d show me. And the guy was on dialysis for years, but he was really positive. He had such an incredible cymbal sound, and everything about his playing just danced, it was so beautiful.
[...] 
At 56, I’m part of the last batch that learned in the old way, figuring it out by fucking up, getting back up on your feet, fucking up again, getting back up on your feet, hanging out, learning from people around you, listening to tons of records, learning the history of your instrument, learning the repertoire, the standard repertoire, the jazz repertoire, composing your own music, starting all that, as one of the last of that batch. That’s why I have this affinity with Billy Hart, who’s 14 years older than me. I probably have more in common with him than someone 14 years younger, who may be playing everything in 7/4, or writing science project pieces, or tunes with too many chords in them. 
I consider myself a very rhythmic player; certainly I’ve earned my stripes in terms of playing rhythm and doing interesting things with time, but I’m also a melodist. Even in my post-bop (or whatever you want to call them) lines, they’re kind of my lines, they’re sort of my shapes, and they’re melodically driven. And hopefully, they follow consecutively from what happened the phrase before. It’s not like I ever practice patterns or altered scales, or any of that other Jazz information stuff.
Practice! "You don’t practice it," Iverson writes about the African rhythmic tradition. You don't practice the emotional connection to the music the way that you practice a time signature or a scale. When Hersch talks about bassist Buster Williams, he says, "We had a really deep connection, a rhythmic connection." The notes - "[a]nd he knew all the notes, too; he really did know all the notes" - are almost secondary.

Hersch, like Iverson, spent years apprenticing himself to older musicians. In the Iverson interview, he says that "When I first started getting trio gigs, if the gig paid 200 dollars, I would hire Buster Williams and Billy Hart, and give them each 100 dollars.... Because A) it was like taking a lesson, B) it meant that people would show up, and C) it would mean that people saw me as deserving to be in that company." Eventually, it became clear that he had earned the right to not only be in that company, but to continue the traditions  - the practices - he had learned from older black jazz musicians on his own.

III.


Common Practice is arguably a major step forward for Iverson. Common Practice still features the hallmarks of an Ethan Iverson project: a set list of chestnuts ("All the Things You Are," "I Can't Get Started," "Out of Nowhere"); an elder statesman, in the person of Tom Harrell; bassist Ben Street; and a drummer deeply and emotionally connected to the rhythmic heritage of jazz.

Years ago, I played a friend Iverson's 2000 recording of "You've Changed," recorded with a quartet including Bill McHenry, Reid Anderson and Jeff Williams. My friend was turned off - "Why does everything have to be deconstructed?" At times in the past, I've imagined Iverson's approach to the piano as being like an exploded diagram - every piece present, but exposed, expanded, examined. Around 2013, when Iverson released Costumes Are Mandatory (with Lee Konitz, Larry Grenadier, and Jorge Rossy), I started having to reexamine my assumptions about Iverson's style. "My Old Flame" had the loosely lyrical quality of a Paul Motian Trio 2000 recording, and while a tune like "It's You" (in two treatments) had a quality of practice (the bad kind) that reminded me of old exploded-diagram Iverson, then what was he doing playing "Blueberry Hill" like that? I was fully converted by Iverson's recordings with Street and Albert Heath, released in 2013 and 2015, by Iverson's own Purity of the Turf, with Ron Carter and Nasheet Waits, and by his playing on Billy Hart's All Our Reasons and One Is the Other (also released on ECM). This output, seen in total, could be said to be a project of construction, of putting disparate influences, both historical and contemporary, in conversation with Iverson's own unique musical identity - of building a bridge from the tradition to oneself, and vice versa.

It is notable that, save for the customary five seconds of silence at its start, Common Practice doesn't sound much like the stereotypical reverb-heavy, spacey ECM record. It was recorded in 2017, not in a cathedral or a cavernous European studio but live at the Village Vanguard - and unlike the rapturous, minutes-long deluges of applause on Keith Jarrett records - the most famous live records from ECM - the clapping for Iverson and the quartet is enthusiastic and human, the recording accurately capturing the sound of a human space inhabited by real people ("African rhythm seeks ecstasy through communion, not just with God but with everyone in the immediate vicinity").

"Wee" is a tightly pulsing workout, with Iverson's piano, wearing a Tristano influence on its sleeve, providing a darker counterpoint to McPherson's sparkling swing. "Sentimental Journey" is the kind of standard Iverson does well, because you can't ever quite pin down all the intentions - is it ironic? postmodern? earnest? My guess is all of the above, but there's nothing detached about Harrell's masterful solo or Ben Street's rock solid support in the low register. On tunes like "I Remember You," the group sounds like a pick-up band, which, in essence, it is - a group convened to support Harrell at the Vanguard. That's not to imply anything slouchy about the sound, though. McPherson and Iverson, especially, are two musicians who are often heard in contexts they have been in long enough to know every musical nook and cranny. Here, they are not so much imbalanced as rebalanced, and the group carries a looseness and lightness with it throughout the whole album that is always welcome. Hearing the melodies of Iverson's solo on "I Remember You" unfold is a special pleasure.

Jazz is a meta-genre, always concerned with its own authenticity and how much it respects its traditions. Iverson is a contributor to those larger conversations as a writer, but this album demonstrates how much his music is able to live in the piano, and on the stage, rather than purely in the abstract. In the record's liner notes, Kevin Sun writes that "[a]fter their last set together, Harrell told Iverson that the collective sound emanating from the rhythm section sounded to him like a new form of music - this, despite the obvious age of the repertoire." I suspect that that final phrase is Sun's, not Harrell's, because I think Harrell would understand that newness isn't contained in charts, it's contained in the connection between the musicians, both with each other and with the rhythms of the music - a connection which creates something new from (in Iverson's phrase) "something really 'old' and swinging." As Iverson himself says in the album's press release, Eric McPherson's "time feel is both ancient and modern… None of us is approaching straight-ahead jazz like we want it to sound like 1955 or 1945 or 1965. We’re playing in the 21st-century. But what I hope gives it depth is a commitment to the tradition." That commitment, Iverson argues with this new music, is jazz's common practice - what Iverson has been finding through his interviews, writing, and playing.

In a 2011 essay, Iverson wrote, "The way to deal with a genius is always: go to the genius." On this newest album, Iverson - back in the company of well-worn standards, Tom Harrell, and the drums - demonstrates that, like Hersch, he has gone to the genius, learned his lessons, and deserves to be in his company. This "common practice" isn't the kind of practice Iverson mentions in "The Drum Thing," or the kind of practice that Hersch talks about in his interview with Iverson. Iverson's Common Practice is not a verb but a noun: "the actual application or use of an idea, belief, or method as opposed to theories about such application or use." This record shows him taking ownership of jazz's common practice in a new way. In the Common Practice press release, Iverson says that "for this record, I wanted to work in the middle, to help things gel." This is a humble quote, but it discounts the power of the center of gravity. He has built his bridge, and now he's crossing it.

NOTES

(1) "Billy Hart's longtime quartet": Hart's 2006 record Quartet with Mark Turner, Iverson, and Street was the first jazz album I bought on my own initiative, with my own money. I saw Hart and Turner (and maybe Street?) play at the Regattabar in Boston with Kurt Rosenwinkel, and loved the show so much I went to the local CD store to find some Billy Hart - I was a drummer, so he was the one I gravitated to. I think the CD was something like thirteen dollars, and a stranger who was also perusing the jazz section actually gave me a few extra dollars so I could afford the album. I had mainly been listening to Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington, Speak No Evil, Cookin' With the Miles Davis Quintet, and Saxophone Colossus, and while I loved the hypnotic rendition of "Confirmation" and the fragile "Lullaby for Imke," Turner's explosive entrance on "Moment's Notice" was completely unintelligible to me. I stuck with the more comfortable (that should be "comfortable") tracks for a few years, but eventually I ventured into the thornier tunes, and the whole record became a favorite. I really credit that whole group with opening up lots of doors for me as a jazz listener.

(2) "Iverson seems to embody one way forward in a music which has wrestled with thorny questions of race, power, tradition and authenticity since its birth": This is my own claim for Iverson, not one he has ever, to my knowledge, advanced about himself.

(3) "You really need the African diaspora to be present to call it a 'rhythm section'": A cross-Iversonian echo: In "Oscar Peterson and Miles Davis," Iverson isolates a sentence from the 1958 Davis interview - "He leaves no holes for the rhythm section" - and uses it as a refrain as he analyzes Peterson's playing: "A good example is the Peterson trio backing Lester Young with little-known but totally solid J.C. Heard on drums. Peterson cannot stop playing the piano for even a second. ('He leaves no holes for the rhythm section.')" In Iverson's interview with Fred Hersch, Hersch says that "Billy Hart once told me, 'if you want to know where to put your left hand, and you’re playing straight-ahead Jazz, listen to where Philly Joe Jones thumps the snare drums, or hits the tom fill.  Those are really good places to lay a chord down.'" That's a lesson not in leaving holes for the rhythm section, but in hearing how the rhythm section points you to holes that already exist in the group dynamic.

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