Ethan Iverson
Photo: Keith Major / Blue Note Records

Ethan Iverson’s ‘Technically Acceptable’ Is a Riveting Journey

Ethan Iverson’s Technically Acceptable feels like a push into his future as an artist, steeped in tradition and breaking with it, too, in his refreshing way.

Technically Acceptable
Ethan Iverson
Blue Note
19 January 2024

Ethan Iverson splashed into our ears as the pianist for the Bad Plus just over 20 years ago. They were then a jazz piano trio, but they hardly played by the rules — covering “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or Stravinsky’s entire “Rite of Spring” — and sometimes playing with a rock groove, classical precision, or an indie rock singer, all of which offended plenty of jazz ears. No matter — as their audience (and Columbia Records) knew the music was bold and good.

Iverson was central to that music, a supple player with two-handed command and a big sound, but when he left the trio in 2017, he started to pursue a different sensibility. He played in duets, trios, and larger groups — no longer seeming to be a firebrand but a “classic” jazz pianist exploring standards, particularly in bands with legendary drummers Billy Hart and Albert “Tootie” Heath. It wasn’t a reaction against those years with the Bad Plus but a notable rebalancing. Iverson proved something that should have been apparent: he understood and valued the tradition all the while his playing had been challenging it.

Technically Acceptable is his second recording for Blue Note, that bastion of the jazz past, and the second in a row to feel like a push into Iverson’s future as an artist — steeped in tradition and breaking with it too, in his refreshing way.

The predecessor recording from 2022, Every Note Is True, featured a trio with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jack DeJohnette mainly playing new Ethan Iverson compositions — some swinging, some anthemic, some elegiac. Technically Accessible features two trios, a duet with a theremin, and a through-composed piano sonata. The result fuses most of Iverson’s interests into one riveting journey.

The first seven tracks are essentially their own album of piano trio miniatures, with Thomas Morgan on bass and drummer Kush Abadey. Only one track exceeds four minutes, and each has a strong identity as a composition. “Victory Is Assured (Alla Breve)” begins with a chiming piano figure establishing a left-hand swing figure that never lets up — as if Count Basie guitarist Freddie Green had taken over the lower register of Iverson’s piano. Morgan and Abadey oblige by locking it down with a tight, unfussy groove, allowing Iverson’s right hand to play every piano style you can imagine: a little Errol Garner, a splash of Bud Powell, not a little Professor Longhair.

“The Chicago Style” is entirely different: less than three minutes of searching, a tempo ballad playing that opens up into a filigreed improvisation like a clear night sky. “The Way Things Are” boasts a memorable minor melody that could become a standard over a loping midtempo that breaks up its 4/4 time into divisions of three beats and five beats, allowing its simplicity to phase shift into polyrhythm in sure hands of Morgan and Abadey.

That’s the magic of recording’s first half. The trio take simple, clear themes and (without extended improvisation) add complexity to each. “Who Are You, Really?” has a theme built from a single, strong melodic lick. But Iverson uses that lick to create sections that vary in length (seven and a half measures, then six and a half, for example), and then improvised sections follow a design that keeps surprising us in little bursts of pleasure as the band shifts on a dime.

A second trio brings in bassist Simón Willson and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza, who have worked with Ethan Iverson on music for the Mark Morris Dance Group. They play the 1970s hit “Killing Me Softly with His Song” in a manner close to Roberta Flack’s original, but Iverson’s single-note improvisation is so distinctive as to be wildly original. Played legato and with pedaling that allows it to reverberate throughout, the improvisation is insistently midtempo with very little silence, frequently referring back to the melody, then piling up small reharmonizations. It is riveting. They also play a beautiful Iverson song, “The Feeling Is Mutual”, which extends the feeling of velvet flow from “Killing Me Softly”.

In between those two performances, the album sequences a version of Thelonious Monk‘s “Round Midnight” that is sui generis in the extreme. Iverson accompanies Rob Schwimmer, playing the melody on theremin, the curious electronic instrument that creates a keening sound as the player waves their hand through a magnetic field. Schwimmer’s sound seems, at first, to be a soprano singing the tune wordlessly — with just the vibrato you would expect from a classically trained human voice. Eventually, however, the range of this “voice” becomes super-human. Schwimmer’s pitch is spot-on, and the achievement evokes a clear WOW, but after hearing it a few times, it seems more like a parlor trick. The arrangement features Iverson often playing like a classical accompanist, given a showy part that splashes around all 88 keys.

The other anomaly on Technically Acceptable is an Iverson performance of his three-movement piano sonata, a through-written composition that puts a great sweep of American jazz pianism into a format that is notably “classical”. It is raggy and romantic, swings, and creates themes and counter-themes. It is utterly unthinkable without James P. Johnson and Duke Ellington (not to mention Cecil Taylor a bit and Don Pullen), yet it can feel like Chopin or Lizst.

A few weeks ago, Ethan Iverson — who is also an accomplished though occasionally controversial jazz writer (his blog is “Do the M@th” and his newsletter is “Transitional Technology”) — published an article in The New York Times with the headline “The Worst Masterpiece: ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ at 100. The article has ruffled a thousand feathers (let’s face it: people love their “Rhapsody in Blue”). His take on Gershwin’s composition, written for the 1924 concert in New York featuring Paul Whiteman’s “jazz orchestra” and meant to showcase the increasing legitimacy of jazz as a young art form, is that it succeed all too well. That is, it borrowed many elements from the young African-American art form of jazz but set them out in a fairly vanilla way. As arranged for that day and most performances up to this day, “Rhapsody in Blue” omits most of what makes jazz complex (its rich rhythmic interplay and daring improvisation) but is so popular that it keeps orchestras from programming much other music that blends jazz and the Western orchestral tradition.

I suppose his piano sonata is an example of what Iverson feels there should be more room for. It features melodic and rhythmic content that is bathed in jazz as it has developed over the last 100 years. In the third movement, “Rondo”, Iverson juxtaposes elements from both traditions in quick cuts that make his purpose pop out, but most of the piece feels highly integrated. You can’t imagine a classical pianist without training and experience in jazz properly playing the bulk of this music.

To my ears, the sonata is rewarding and rich, placing a level of rigor and formed intent onto the “jazz” content. It uses elements we might hear in Iverson’s writing and improvisation but structures them in a way that forces the material toward the logic of a composer.

This raises a thousand interesting questions. If the performer is a great jazz pianist, does he need to be forced into such a structure for the piece to be successful? Is the success from a spontaneously discovered structure (what we hear from, say, a Matthew Shipp or Fred Hersch performance) more dazzling, earned, and more true to the art form? Or is that notion of a bit of jazz “romance” irrelevant if Iverson gives us something marvelous that can be recreated with certainty every time his piece is played? For that matter, if a young jazz pianist tackled Iverson’s sonata and chose to improvise within it …?

What if Ethan Iverson had simply recorded these three (connected) pieces of music without the rhetorical flourish of calling them a “sonata”? Divorcing the music itself from Iverson’s New York Times article and all these questions, it remains rich and challenging solo piano — fun in how it places groove elements into a precise manner of playing. It is, therefore, quite similar to Iverson’s playing with the Bad Plus and notably different from how he sounds with jazz trios featured elsewhere on Technically Acceptable, a generous and good album that might have been titled for the track “Who Are You, Really?”

RATING 7 / 10