Ethan Iverson: Roll Call
“ A pianist who did lavish affection on melodies was Tommy Flanagan, who I first heard at age 16 at the Jazz Showcase with George Mraz and Kenny Washington. ”
By Ethan Iverson
This is my tribute to musicians who are no longer with us but that I managed to see perform. Their names are in bold.
I spent my first night in New York City at the Village Vanguard. It was August 1991, I was 18 years old and Ed Blackwell was in Joe Lovano's quintet with Tom Harrell, John Abercrombie and Rufus Reid. As good as all the records are, there is no way for a recording to convey how radical Blackwell's blend of folklore and modernism was live. I was privileged to hear Blackwell on three more occasions: at the Vanguard again (his own group with Graham Haynes, Carlos Ward and Mark Helias); at Merkin Hall (Lovano's night with Dewey Redman and Dave Holland); and at Alice Tully Hall for the last performance of Old and New Dreams, the profound assembly of Blackwell, Redman, Charlie Haden and Don Cherry. Redman and Haden together will always be some of my favorite harmony: I experienced chills when the tenor solo began on the set's opener, "Happy House . Cherry's earthy charisma was still intact, but he was very sick and he was sadly absent the last time Ornette Coleman, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins played together. The music was still beautiful, of course: it was the final set of a Coleman spectacular at Battery Park. Higgins' discreet feathering was always shrouded in mystery, but that evening the bass drum microphone was too hot, revealing all sorts of fascinating and busy detail. Of the many marvelous nights I saw Higgins with Cedar Walton, one evening at Sweet Basil with Walton, Higgins and Ron Carter remains the best night of straight ahead trio playing that I have ever heard.
Somehow I missed Ron Carter with Tony Williams and their special relationship is one of my passions: not just the work with Miles Davis, but also on '70s records with Hank Jones and on Carter's overlooked album Etudes. They played trio in New York with Mulgrew Miller just before Williams passed away so unexpectedly. I didn't go because I was feeling broke and will always regret not borrowing the money. I did see a high-octane Tony Williams Quintet performance at the Artist's Quarter in Minneapolis while I was still in high school, around the same time I traveled to the Jazz Showcase in Chicago for my first experience of Elvin Jones. I sat right in front of the bass drum, a good idea that I duplicated many times in New York at the Blue Note, including at Mr. Jones' last appearance there. Gravity was defined anew when Elvin Jones was on the stand - Newton is probably taking notes right now.
In the early '90s Joe Henderson would play two-week stretches at Fat Tuesday's. He was the ideal balance between a "working class straight ahead player and a fantastical fabulist. It was always quartet: the first year he had Kenny Barron, Rufus Reid and Victor Lewis, the second year Larry Willis, Charles Fambrough and Joe Chambers and the third time Willis, Larry Grenadier and longtime associate Al Foster. Foster had a remarkable relationship with the saxophonist, which is fortunately documented on some great trio records. As much as I saw Joe Henderson play, I wish I had seen him more.
Then there was Kenny Kirkland, Charnett Moffett and Jeff Watts playing standards at the restaurant Zinno's. This group shared a lot of history and played with a deep beat and complete mutual understanding. (This gig is now legend: surely somebody has tapes.) Kirkland was never known as a trio pianist and perhaps rightfully so, for he played the melodies of standards without much love (a common problem with high-energy band pianists). The love was in the blowing: there is no doubt that Kirkland was the greatest heir to McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock. His strength was frankly astonishing.
A pianist who did lavish affection on melodies was Tommy Flanagan, who I first heard at age 16 at the Jazz Showcase with George Mraz and Kenny Washington. The highlight of the set was "Tin Tin Deo . Some of us timidly introduced ourselves afterward and I asked him how he got that marvelous sound out of the instrument. He replied unsmiling, "It's an old piano. Much more recently I saw Percy Heath with his brothers at the Blue Note. Heath's obituaries stressed his work with the Modern Jazz Quartet, neglecting to mention that Heath's performance on the quartet sides with Bird, Al Haig and Max Roach is the best bass playing on any Charlie Parker record and that "Bag's Groove with Miles Davis, Milt Jackson, Monk, Heath and Kenny Clarke is the first time that a walking bass line is as important as the soloist.
Not every concert with musicians I knew from records was satisfying. Steve Lacy at the Vanguard with Mal Waldron was a bizarre experience: I know every note of their duo album Sempre Amore, but that night they seemed distant and casual. My favorite Don Pullen album is New Beginnings, but the one time I saw him it was not a good gig (wasn't his fault). Were my ears foggy listening to the underrated Sir Roland Hanna at Knickerbocker's with Paul West? His left hand seemed crippled and the music barely penetrated the smoke and noise at the bar. My early love for his solo album Swing Me No Waltzes was recently rekindled and I now feel that it was presumptuous of me to walk out of the Knickerbocker that night without planning to go back. Hanna melded jazz and classical music in an unpretentious way and swung like a demon.
Other significant players I heard live included the soulful Clifford Jordan together with the quiet Johnny Coles on a Hank Jones quintet gig...Art Farmer who played ballads so beautifully...John Stubblefield who was the furnace in the Mingus Band. Michel Petrucciani was a tiny gladiator, Vernell Fournier was reserved fire, Jimmy Lovelace was a dark knight in bright white.
There are musicians who passed on since my '91 arrival in New York that I regretfully did not manage to see. How could I have missed Jaki Byard? I love his playing. I also missed Art Taylor, Milt Jackson, Fred Hopkins and Ray Brown. The full regalia of Sun Ra, the fabulous madness of the Art Ensemble of Chicago with Lester Bowie and Malachi Favors and the blistering World Saxophone Quartet with Julius Hemphill were all theatrical experiences I'm sure the records do no justice to, but none of those groups played NYC after '91. I did see Dizzy Gillespie while still in high school, but after I got my ticket for Art Blakey he was too sick to perform.
A recording can reproduce the pitches but not the vibrations of a master musician. I am blessed to have been in the presence of many of these masters who are now gone.
Since moving to NYC in the early '90s from Wisconsin, pianist Ethan Iverson has recorded with Dewey Redman and Billy Hart, become Musical Director of the Mark Morris Dance Group and is one-third of The Bad Plus group (as billed - "The loudest piano trio ever ) with Reid Anderson (bass) and David King (drums). Together they jazzily deconstruct works ranging from Abba and Aphex Twin, to Neil Young and Nirvana and Rodgers & Hart.