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Higher Standards: Ethan Iverson Trio at Smalls

Eric Benson By

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Ethan Iverson Trio, with Ben Street and Albert "Tootie" Heath
Smalls
New York, NY
March 23, 2009

In the final scene of the film Big Night, the manager of an Italian restaurant played by Stanley Tucci makes a plain three-egg omelette—no cheese, no onions or peppers, just a little olive oil and three brown eggs. The night before, Tucci's restaurant had hosted a feast of pasta towers, suckling pig, and mounds of risotto—pull-out-the-stops dishes that require serious training and more than a pinch of talent. So when we see Tucci walk into the kitchen the next morning, we already know he's no amateur. But it's his dazzling command of the simple tasks of omelette-making that really proves his culinary chops. We see him break the eggs with compact knocks against the lip of the bowl (not a drop of yolk or whites spilled), lift the shells with the grace of a dancers arms rising into a pirouette, and cook the eggs at a brisk pace with profound calm.
Last Monday, three top-notch jazz musicians—pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Ben Street, and drummer Albert "Tootie" Heath—applied their considerable skills to their own version of Tucci's comfort food: a warm, joyously simple standards set at Smalls. Iverson has made these standards gigs something of a regular occurrence. Last March, I saw him team up with FLY and Jeff Ballard, and last December with Reid Anderson and Nasheet Waits. All three times, Iverson has taken a more restrained, more lyrical approach than he can within the taut, propulsive interplay of The Bad Plus.

Iverson seems to relish the luxury of this infrequent simplicity—the extra room, the languid tempos, the sepia-toned glow of "I'll Remember April" and "As Time Goes By." Yet it's not as if Iverson and his collaborators check their expertise and restless souls at the door and assume the personality of a hotel lobby band. At least a handful of people in the audience at Smalls last Monday probably could have played tunes like "Confirmation" and "Like Someone In Love" pretty serviceably, but they wouldn't have had a prayer at matching the trio's subtle precision and perfect balance.

Monday marked the first time that either Iverson or Street had played with Heath, and they seemed happy to defer control over the music's direction to the 73-year-old master. Heath's didn't dominate so much as guide, his sparse, straight-ahead drumming shaping the music's contours and sparking its drive.

On "I'll Remember April," the set's second number, Heath riffed off Iverson's block chord introduction by striking a Latin-like rhythm that gave the music a buoyant, limber feel. Without Heath's contribution the music might have verged on being too dense; with his drumming, it became jaunty. When Iverson returned to play the final chorus, he followed Heath's approach, sounding percussive and loose.

Heath had a similarly transformative effect on "The Shadow of Your Smile," the set's high point. Iverson began the piece with a slowly unfolding solo that delayed resolution as he mounted dissonance on top of dissonance. Heath accompanied these dark, aching lines with the hollow pitter-patter of the floor tom, creating a rhythmic complement to Iverson's solo that put it in sharper relief.

Most of the music's shifts of pace and color occurred in this kind of interplay between Iverson and Heath, but Ben Street was hardly a passive party, providing a soulful, round beat that gave Heath the opportunity to play so flexibly. When Heath's cymbal taps drifted off into silence, Street kept pushing forward, ensuring the music's continuity and cohesiveness.

As the set progressed, the music got noticeably stronger and fuller, the trio rapidly growing more confident and more willing to push each other. Iverson and Street played with inventiveness and respect, and Heath had enough faith in his collaborators to play softly, often tapping a comma where a less trusting drummer would have bashed out an exclamation point.

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