Ethan Iverson/Larry Grenadier/Paul Motian at the Village Vanguard on March 3, 2011

Warren Allen By

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Ethan Iverson / Larry Grenadier / Paul Motian
The Village Vanguard
New York, NY
March 3, 2011

The press that followed the rise of The Bad Plus rocked jazz's slightly dusty seismometer. And with it, pianist Ethan Iversion rose to the forefront of the jazz piano world for his heart-pounding work in the Plus' Prog-jazz aesthetic. Yet, at his core, Iverson is a powerful player who mixes cracks of atonality with a stately lyricism that draws broadly from the strata of jazz history. Of course, no "modern" jazz musician has grown up untouched by classical composers or rock and rollers. Iverson bears this out particularly well, and it's a great treat to hear these influences emerge when he plays in unexpected combinations beyond the Plus.

Appearing at the hallowed ground of New York City's Village Vanguard, Iverson joined bassist Larry Grenadier, along with VV perennial Paul Motian, for a night of classic piano trio jazz. Opening with a brief bout of solo piano, he warmed up with a delicate exploratory touch, before the band came in with a drawn out and appropriately spacey version of "Stardust." Motian's drawn out insinuations of meter left wide open spaces into which the others leapt, with Grenadier shaking out showers of fat bass notes like cherries from the tree.

Charlie Parker's classic "Now's the Time" followed, with its simple bluesy call punctuated by the delicate crash of Motian's infamous Swiss Clanger cymbal. Iverson's solo had a pared-down quality to it, gradually developing a soulful statement from something that sounded deceptively easy, even as he dented his blue notes with a ringing percussive dissonance.

This, in turn, led to Motian's "Victoria," one of the highlights of the set, with the composer now on brushes, and a distinctly Chopin vibe in the piano. As Iverson spun out a beautiful rolling ostinato and Grenadier drew out a deep-tugging drone from two strings, Motian's shimmers of cymbal were delicate accoutrements as the bass and piano pulled their pitches upwards and built to a glorious intensity. Iverson slipped into touches of atonality as Motian pattered and Grenadier's bass spoke over the gentle chaos. The piano crescendoed, and the drums quieted.

Another Motian tune, "Dance," produced more great results, with arco bass and piano taking the jumping, schizophrenic, and angular melody, as the drums cut loose to fill the room with sound. Iverson quoted the old spiritual, "Wade in the Water," and Grenadier took up the call. As he droned with his bow, making something close to a growl, the piano exploded into the free space with rocking, bluesy and discordant cacophony. Iverson pounded out dark and powerful block chords that rang sharply like broken bells. Grenadier followed this with a near-classical bass solo filled with deep lyricism, standing in stark contrast to Iverson's explosive tendencies until the very end. The solo ended with a unison crack from the piano and bass, ceding the floor to Motian, who uncorked it all over again. The Clanger took a beating.

What followed was a great, but too short take on James P. Johnsons classic "Charleston," which delighted the room immediately with its upbeat, old school melody. This was, undoubtedly, an Iverson pick, who was a part of the James P. Johnson Last Rent party at Smalls in 2009, to purchase a headstone to mark the great ragtime pianist's then-unmarked grave. Love of Johnson's music showed again here, as Iverson took the tune a little out, built it up to a fractious crescendo, and then brought it back to the dance hall.

Other highlights included a delightful, off-kilter version of "All of Me." First painting an intricate atonal landscape, Iverson then moved into a sweet ballad feel as Motian clanged out time, the song seemingly coalescing out of nowhere. Bass and piano swapped ideas around the melody and, on the out-head, Iverson kept lingering over one lyrical section, for an effect like a skipping phonograph, before the band quieted and resolved.

This was a set that defied expectations, not just in terms of reworking great standards for new experiences, but in producing surprises by reworking the reworked. Fresh ideas and virtuoso playing is a good combination, and a sense of spontaneity was in the air all night long. Grenadier was a force from his first note, and Motian makes any band sound good.

While Iverson never seemed to cut quite as loose as he has with the Bad Plus, he came awfully close, and it's always fascinating to hear his special touch in the context of different trios. All the colors of ragtime, bebop, blues, and the avant-garde that come out in his playing shine particularly bright in these bands. The subtle swing he showed on tunes like "I Should Care," for instance, made for special moments. And playing with the sparse and atmospheric Motian is about as far as one can get from the heavy rocking David King in The Bad Plus. That meeting alone was exciting and, of course, Motian has always been capable of more than enough bombast of his own when so inclined. He showed it tonight. This is the fun of piano trios, where the players are always on point.

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