A Minute with Jazz Pianist Ethan Iverson

Jazz pianist and writer Ethan Iverson has made his mark in contemporary jazz, with performances in venues as diverse as the Village Vanguard, Carnegie Hall, and Bonnaroo, and collaborations with artists like Joshua Redman, Mark Turner, Bill Frisell, Ron Carter, and the Mark Morris Dance Group.

Iverson has been working on his solo piano concept for decades. His Live from Indian Hill set on May 22 will unveil new work created specifically for this idiom, drawing on the whole of the jazz tradition.

 

How and when did you discover your passion for piano, and jazz? You’re also on faculty at New England Conservatory. What inspired you to teach?

I was seven years old when I started playing piano, but I certainly wasn’t a prodigy; and frankly these days I practice more than ever, still learning how to refine my technique. Jazz is the American meeting point of harmony, coming from Europe, and rhythm, coming from Africa. I was first exposed to those kinds of sounds from television, Henry Mancini and John Barry movie scores, and so forth. As for many, the written scores of Scott Joplin were my way “in” to improvising and playing jazz. I’ve always liked talking about the music, and eventually I started writing about it. Teaching was the natural next step. Since I wasn’t a prodigy, I know how to break things down for students, since I’ve had to work so hard on understanding it all myself.

You recently reviewed Disney Pixar’s jazz-based animated film Soul  in The Nation. As a jazz musician, how do you think the film portrays the genre?

I give Soul an A for its jazz, especially for a major Hollywood movie — especially when contrasted with its forebears Green BookLa-La-Land, and Whiplash.

Along with playing and composing music, you are a popular jazz blogger and writer. How do you hope to explore and advance the genre through your writing? 

Jazz is 100 years old, and it’s been just over 50 years since the death of the last true master/innovator, John Coltrane. We are still learning what it all was and what it all meant. I hope my writing helps shine light on greatness — and I also learn how to be a better player in the process.

You’ve played and collaborated with jazz legends and acclaimed contemporary musicians, and also with the internationally-acclaimed Mark Morris Dance Group. Are there similarities to collaborating with these highly-accomplished instrumentalists and dancers/choreographers?

Working with modern dance and working in small combo jazz requires completely different skill sets. However, in the final analysis, the greater issue of aesthetics is the same no matter the discipline. My two most important mentors are master choreographer Mark Morris and master drummer Billy Hart. They both know when something is “right” or not.  It’s very helpful to watch a master make their final aesthetic choices up close!

How might you prepare differently for a solo concert than a trio or quartet date?

Solo piano is harder! But I’ve been working on solo piano for a long time. The main thing is how I need to carry rhythm myself. I toured quite a bit in a duo with saxophonist Mark Turner before COVID; that was helpful. Some of it is merely acquiring confidence.

How has your performing career been impacted by COVID and what do you imagine the long-term implications for artists like you and New York jazz venues might be?

It’s very hard for my community, of course. In the long view, the arts survive. In the short view, NYC jazz will have to pick up the pieces of what’s left.

What are you listening to now? 

I’m listening to Ron Carter’s classic 1982 album Etudes, which I’ve always loved, and will be the topic of my next column for JazzTimes.

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