New York City
In the third installment of this year’s Abby Whiteside Foundation piano recital series at Weill Hall, Ethan Iverson premiered a suite of original jazz "etudes," written with a view toward "expanding the range of the improvising pianist." Piano etudes, in classical literature, are intended as exercises that address specific technical issues on the instrument. Iverson builds upon this tradition by making his etudes not only technical workouts, but also a series of improvisational "assignments." He dedicates the suite to his piano teacher, Sophia Rosoff, who studied with the legendary Abby Whiteside and herself became an exponent of the "Whiteside principles" that are the bedrock of her piano pedagogy. (Rosoff’s other students have included Barry Harris, Myra Melford, and Bruce Barth.)
In his typically offbeat fashion, Iverson begins the title of each movement with the letter "b": "Bells," "Barrel," "Ballad," "Brush," "Bleak," and "Boogie." Combining various forms of classical composition with jazz piano idioms such as barrelhouse and boogie-woogie, Iverson formulates an original musical language that is at once playful and majestic, tuneful yet dauntingly advanced. It’s not at all obvious where the "jazz" stops and where the "classical" begins. In fact, when considering Iverson’s work one cannot really speak of mere classical "influences," for his mastery of modern classical harmony runs far deeper than that term implies.
The first half of the concert featured Iverson in his "deconstruction" mode, playing highly unorthodox interpretations of familiar songs. His very first communication with the audience is spoken, not played: he recites the first lines of Victor Young’s "Beautiful Love" before sitting down to present the melody over a dizzying fusillade of left-hand clusters. He does similarly with Michel Legrand’s "Windmills of Your Mind," and also ends the final encore, "Body and Soul," with just his voice, singing the very last phrase. Some have rightly noted that Bill Charlap, an excellent straight-ahead jazz pianist, distinguishes himself with his careful attention to song lyrics, but Iverson gives us a whole new slant on what that can mean.
As Iverson continues, we hear a churning "All of Me," an extraordinary "’Round Midnight," an outrageously polytonal "Perfidia" (a Spanish folk melody), a fairly straightforward "Nothing to Lose" (Mancini), and a surprising "I Will Survive." (If there’s another musician willing or able to combine Monk and Gloria Gaynor in a single set, he or she has yet to come forward.) Iverson concludes his reading of the disco hit with a single, repeated high note, which he continues to play as he gets up to take his bow. Later, when Iverson takes his three encores, he continues his unique brand of mischief with "Darling Clementine," a breakneck "All the Things You Are," and the aforementioned "Body and Soul."
In the next installment of the Abby Whiteside series on March 28, classical pianist Reiko Uchida will make her New York debut, performing works by Bach, Ravel, Henze, and Brahms.