Every Note Is True, Ethan Iverson
As a pianist, as a composer, and as a critic, Ethan Iverson has long celebrated both the rich tradition and continuous evolution of jazz. So, it seems only fitting that he would eventually take his place on the roster of Blue Note Records, which has provided a home for innovation rooted in the music’s foundations throughout its eight-decade history.
Iverson makes his Blue Note debut with Every Note Is True, an engaging and evocative date featuring a masterful new trio with bassist Larry Grenadier and legendary drummer Jack DeJohnette. The album is an opportunity for the pianist to look back at and expand upon his own musical history including the pop/rock-influenced jazz style of The Bad Plus, the influential trio that Iverson co-founded in 2000.
Since leaving The Bad Plus in late 2017, Iverson has undertaken a diverse range of projects including collaborations with iconic drummers Billy Hart and Albert “Tootie” Heath; recordings with trumpeter Tom Harrell and saxophonist Mark Turner; and compositions for orchestra, big band, and the Mark Morris Dance Group. Each of these, alongside his acclaimed, long-running blog Do the Math and his writings in publications including The New Yorker and The Nation, have allowed Iverson to explore his inspirations from a variety of perspectives.
“I’ve been extraordinarily busy with a lot of projects that try to assess the tradition,” Iverson says. “Playing with Tootie and Billy was almost a reaction against playing with The Bad Plus every night. But I was starting to feel my oats to play that kind of piano again, so I consciously composed a set of attractive tunes that have a bit of a pop influence. It could never be The Bad Plus without Reid and Dave, but some of that bright big piano is back.”
While Every Note Is True definitely features stylistic elements in common with the sound that Iverson had helped to forge over the 17 years that the original Bad Plus worked together, there is also no doubt that the album showcases a very different trio helmed by a more mature composer. Taking advantage of DeJohnette and Grenadier’s unusually open schedules due to the pandemic’s interruption of live music and touring, Iverson seized the opportunity to arrange a studio date with the two highly in-demand musicians. But it was the leader’s insightful understanding of each player’s voice and talents that made it such an inspired teaming.
Iverson had previous experience playing with Grenadier, who he refers to as “a major virtuoso with a wonderful old-school ‘thump’ in his feel.” But the first time he crossed paths with DeJohnette was in the studio. Aside from a remarkable career in jazz that includes landmark collaborations with Keith Jarrett, Miles Davis, Charles Lloyd, and countless other legends, Iverson points out that DeJohnette “is also one of the great rock drummers. Not everyone of his generation embraced that world like Jack. He’ll cite [The Band’s] Levon Helm and people like that. Which is not to say that this is a rock-heavy record, but there’s an aspect of that style that felt comfortable with this trio.”
As a model for the trio, Iverson cites Money Jungle, the raucous and freewheeling 1962 album by the unlikely trio of Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach. “It’s great to hear Larry and Jack swinging out,” Iverson exclaims. “With the two of them, you don’t need a lot of material. If you bring in something really simple, no more than basic sketches, they’ll take it over and make it sound great. That’s very much in the tradition of those great Blue Note records from the 50s and 60s, where the tunes are memorable but there aren’t too many notes on a page.”
Every Note Is True opens with “The More It Changes,” a kind of benediction upon emerging from a period of enforced isolation, featuring a 44-voice virtual choir culled from Iverson’s network of contacts. The pianist’s wife, writer Sarah Deming, penned the text, which lends the album its name. “I’m a terrible singer,” Iverson admits. “You can hear my warble high in the mix. But I love amateur singing! An amateur choir or a children’s choir is a glorious, almost cinematic sound.”
The cinematic feeling continues with “The Eternal Verities,” an uplifting pop-classical piece inspired by the composer’s mother-in-law, Ruth Deming. “She told me that she liked to sit on her porch and contemplate the eternal verities,” Iverson recalls. “This piece fell out of me the next day. The tune sort of loops around itself in an unexpected way, but its harmonic frame is very basic. Traditional harmony is very, very important to me. It is eternal.”
Iverson is a child of the television generation, and of course many became intimately reacquainted with the boob tube during months under lockdown conditions. “She Won’t Forget Me” is Iverson’s stab at a theme song for an imaginary TV rom-com. “I can see the credits rolling when I’m playing,” he says.
The shimmering waltz “For Ellen Raskin” is dedicated to the Newbery Medal-winning author of The Westing Game, a 1978 mystery novel for children that was formative in Iverson’s literary life. As anyone that follows his prolific Twitter feed will know, crime and mystery literature is a passion second only to music for Iverson, and Raskin’s writing was one of his first introductions to the genre. That predilection is also referenced on the album-closing blues “At the Bells and Motley,” its title taken from an Agatha Christie story.
The one piece not composed by Iverson is an atmospheric rendition of DeJohnette’s “Blue,” originally recorded on the drummer’s 1978 album Gateway 2. “Goodness Knows” follows with a post-modern refraction of stride that bridges the decades between Fats Waller and Jason Moran. The tender “Had I But Known” is a through-composed solo piano piece, a brief spotlight for Iverson’s profound gifts as a composer. “Merely Improbable” takes the opposite tack, unleashing the trio on the familiar foundation of rhythm changes.
“Praise Will Travel” is another blues, acknowledging one of Iverson’s primary goals in both his music and his writing. “I believe in generating karma through celebration,” he says. “We live in an era where the hot take and the think piece are usually about tearing people down, but I think there should be more room for celebrating that anything good happens at all. In this case, I’m thankful that I get to play with Larry and Jack, and of course thankful for their incredible musicianship. Yes. I want my thanks to be visible.”
In essence, it’s that dedication that lies behind the album’s title, Every Note Is True. “If I play it, I believe in it,” Iverson concludes.
Ethan Iverson, piano
Larry Grenadier, bass
Jack DeJohnette, drums