Do or Die

A special one-off gig at the Village Vanguard this week, January 24-29: The Ethan Iverson quartet featuring Tom Harrell with Ben Street and Eric McPherson.

Two summers ago I played a couple of duo gigs with Tom at Mezzrow. They went really well. Everyone who attended agreed that it was wonderful to simply hear Tom Harrell play familiar standards.

Tom is a prolific composer and for many years has been delivering a constant stream of fabulous new tunes with varied and always valuable projects. However, he’s also one of the greatest soloists in classic repertoire, perhaps the last of the line of the melodic bebop/hard bop trumpeters. While tough enough to play with Horace Silver for six years, Tom also has the vulnerability of Miles Davis or Lester Young on a ballad. His lines are always fresh yet authentic.

In a recent DTM interview, Tom mentions favorite solos by Dizzy, Fats, Clifford, Miles, KD, Blue Mitchell, Chet, Lee, Donald Byrd, Freddie, and Woody. This is his tradition yet he also sounds like himself.

Completing the rhythm section at Vanguard will be two of my peers. Ben Street is my great compadre in standards playing and our invaluable academy has been many performances with Tootie Heath and Billy Hart. At this point Ben and I have a mutual harmonic understanding that is both telepathic and contrapuntal.

Eric McPherson comes to the tradition more naturally than Ben or me, having grown up loading in Freddie Waits’s drums into the Vanguard and meeting Max Roach, Billy Higgins, and other heroes while still a kid. Richard Davis is Eric’s godfather. At the age of 20 he went on tour with Jackie McLean, a decade later with Andrew Hill. Eric swings hard but also plays his complete life experience which includes a love of the avant garde and a deep understanding of clavé. Ben recently compared Eric’s conception to Paul Motian and Andrew Cyrille.

Ben, Eric, and me played three gigs together last year. It felt provocative and fresh. Ben and Eric are on the same page personally and musically. One of the gigs was with Dayna Stephens, who told me afterwards he thought that this was one of the deepest bass and drums hook-ups he’d ever heard.

The idea is to treat the band like a rhapsodic yet earthy backdrop for Tom’s gorgeous playing. We’ve all known all the music for decades so there will be no sheet music or intellectual conceits to distance us from spontaneous inspiration. The essential question is, can a quartet still do a hit at the Vanguard playing standards and have it be truly meaningful?

A window is closing. Those of us that really love jazz in all of its most esoteric yet soulful wonder must play well enough to keep this music alive. In my own long journey towards becoming an inarguably valid jazz pianist, this gig may be the final showdown.

I was surprised and delighted with two recent reviews by well-known European critics. Ueli Bernays wrote of Mark Turner and me performing in Switzerland: “Music is now open in all directions with overlapping historical references. In the dense fog of styles one finds no more right and no more wrong. Often one is satisfied with “better or worse” instead of “good and bad.” Yet the pianist Ethan Iverson and saxophonist Mark Turner search together for timeless, absolute qualities. Both have what you originally expected in jazz but most don’t dare to do anymore: an unmistakable personal style.” John Fordham reviewed the last trio disc with Ron Carter and Nasheet Waits: “The patient leader assembles new melody lines with trenchant invention in solos that sound increasingly like purposeful narratives.”

Well, I hope the overseas critics are right. This week we will find out at the ultimate testing ground, the greatest jazz club ever, the Village Vanguard.

Iverson/Harrell/Street/McPherson sets to be drawn from this list:

All the Things You Are
Out of Nowhere
The Song is You
I Remember You
I’m Getting Sentimental Over You
I’ll Remember April
Stella by Starlight
Three and One (Thad Jones)
“Old” (John Lewis) Milestones
Wee (Denzil Best rhythm changes)
Dance of the Infidels
Moon and Sand
Sail Away (Harrell’s tune is a standard at this point)
Sentimental Journey
Polkadots and Moonbeams
The Man I Love
Lover Man
I Can’t Get Started