Ethan Iverson, pianist, composer, and writer, has been on a wide-ranging explorative journey since in 2017 leaving the immensely popular Bad Plus, the group he co-founded in 2000. An artist of his stature seems inevitably bound to land on the Blue Note roster at some point, and Iverson makes his debut with top-notch trio bandmates, bassist Larry Grenadier and living legend, drummer Jack DeJohnette. Surely the minimalist pop/rock aspects of The Bad Plus sound are unmistakably present but Iverson’s more ‘in the tradition’ projects in recent years with drummers Billy Hart and Albert ‘Tootie” Heath, as well as recordings with trumpeter Tom Harrell and saxophonist Mark Turner, play in as well. Add to that the sensibilities of Grenadier (with whom he had played before) and for the first time, DeJohnette, who brings a special aspect to the sound. That Iverson has composed for orchestra, big band, and dance companies in recent years may also be a slight factor. It’s certainly not the usual jazz piano trio sound.
Iverson admits to composing some tunes with pop influence and taps into the unheralded, Levon Helm side of DeJohnette’s drumming, claiming that DeJohnette is one of the great rock drummers, while most will associate the legend with Keith Jarrett, Charles Lloyd, Miles Davis, and other iconic jazz figures. Iverson modeled the concept of the album on Money Jungle, the rollicking, boisterous 1962 album by the formidable but unlikely trio of Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach. Iverson, true to what we associate with The Bad Plus, is driven to write memorable songs rather than dazzle with endless runs of notes.
While most are trio renditions, there is a solo piano piece, a piece from DeJohnette, and the opening track, “The More It Changes,” which features a 44-voice ‘amateur’ choir. You can hear the self-critical Iverson singing faintly in the background on the brief, 1-minute plus benediction, where his wife, the writer, Sarah Deming, penned the lyric about crawling out of our stay-at-home state. Keeping it family-related, his pop classical “The Eternal Verities” is inspired by his mother-in-law, Ruth Deming, and carries a basic, charming melody that DeJohnette has some fun with on his kit. Here one easily discerns the confluence of the classical with The Bad Plus sound. While those two bear cinematic qualities, “She Won’t Forget Me” is his imaginary try at a romantic comedy TV theme. Again, his melodic piano playing just floats above intense rhythms from DeJohnette and Grenadier.
The glistening waltz “For Ellen Raskin” is another of Iverson’s literary inspired tunes. Rain is the Newberry Medal-winning author of The Westing Game, a 1978 mystery novel for children that left a lasting impact. His bent for crime and mystery novels falls second only to his love for music and the title of the bluesy closing “At the Bells and Motley,” references an Agatha Christie story, featuring stunning soloing from his trio mates. The blues riff at the end is simply a delightful closing touch.
The ethereal “Blue” that first appeared on DeJohnette’s 1978 Gateway 2 serves as a stylistic contrast, almost as a quiet interlude between the Raskin composition and the updated stride piano “Goodness Knows” which Iverson describes as “Ancient to the Future,” spanning Fats Waller and Jason Moran. It proves a feature for the sturdy, animated walking bass lines from Grenadier. Iverson follows with another calming turn in his gorgeous, through-composed solo piano “Had I But Known,” played in his signature style of a few judiciously chosen notes (the album title is not a casual phrase). As you might expect by now, “Merely Improbable” is the opposite, as the trio engages in vivacious rhythm changes, where some of that ‘rock’ side of DeJohnette’s drumming comes to the fore. “Praise Will Travel” is a celebratory piece rooted in a blues structure, another that allows plenty of freedom for his rhythm mates to play inventively.
Iverson will clearly cull favor with his many Bad Plus fans and is likely to draw core jazz fans as well, given the presence of his trio mates. So, this is an essence a ‘crossover’ piano trio with elements of pop, classical, blues, and mainstream jazz that makes it eminently accessible.