ALBUMS: Ethan Iverson and Tom Harrell Practice Common Ground

A new quintet blooms on ECM Records with Common Practice

Ethan Iverson Quartet featuring Tom Harrell Common Practice, ECM 2019

Artist: Ethan Iverson Quartet Plus Tom Harrell

Album: Common Practice

Label: ECM Records

★★★★ (4/5 stars)

Pianist Ethan Iverson made his name as keyboard pounder for The Bad Plus, a trio dedicated to shaking up jazz traditions, deconstructing standards, adapting modern rock to piano triad logistics, and adding their own quirky originals to the jazz repertoire.

But Iverson is no gadfly – his re-interpretations of post-bop jazz were done out of love, an attempt at getting inside classic methodologies in order to understand how they worked and what could be done to keep them fresh. As postmodernist as he can be, Iverson carries a deep passion for the jazz tradition, exercising that side of his talent with the remarkable Billy Hart Quartet and as a professor at the New England Conservatory. With Common Practice, his first album with his eponymous quartet, he indulges that passion fully. 

Interestingly, while this could have been a perfect opportunity to show off his own virtuosity, Iverson chooses to act as bandleader more than featured performer. That spotlight falls instead on trumpeter Tom Harrell, a longtime leader in his own right with a sublimely tasteful touch. “The Man I Love,” a nearly-century old Gerswhin ballad, showcases Harrell at his most Chet Bakeresque, sticking close to the melody and adding enough feeling to make each note count, never sinking into melodrama. Acting as the moderator between Harrell and the relaxed swing of bassist Ben Street and drummer Eric McPherson, Iverson provides comping so austere it’s almost minimalist, letting his bandmates earn any close attention. When given the chance to shine on the old classic “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” or his own “Philadelphia Creamer,” the pianist sticks to chords instead of fingerbusting single note lines, staying in an easy swinging pocket as part of the rhythm section. On the ballads “I Can’t Get Started” (a second Gershwin tune) and “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” (from the classic Jimmy Van Heusen/Johnny Burke catalog), Iverson stays in line with his comrade Harrell’s every-note-in-its-place style, rather than the barnburning of old. 

Iverson does step out more forcefully on a blazing version of Denzil Best’s “Wee,” ripping across the bouncing melody in short bursts. But the tune is as much a showcase for McPherson as for the bandleader, with a drum solo that keeps the drive of the performance surging forward. The foursome’s frisky take on Hammerstein/Kern’s “All the Things You Are” also gives Iverson some energetic solo space, but, again, he’s willingly sharing that space with Harrell, who also turns in some fleet-fingered breaks. The trumpeter takes the lead on the closing number, Johnny Mercer’s “I’ll Remember You” – even when soloing, Iverson takes a supporting role, keeping flash to a minimum. The entire band makes the most of that classic melody, perfectly encapsulating the jazz tradition in six-and-a-half minutes. 

Drawing less on his work with The Bad Plus and more on his time with Billy Hart, Iverson uses Common Practice as a vehicle for interests outside of deconstruction and avant-garde whimsy. His next trick should be melding his interests into a unified whole; combined with his deft keyboard touch and ability to get inside a tune, that will make some undeniable fireworks. But if for some reason he decides to continue drawing from the well of standards, Common Practice proves he has the ability and the vision to do it, and do it well. 


VIDEO: Ethan Iverson Quartet with Tom Harrell ECM EPK


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Michael Toland

Michael Toland has been writing about music for various fan- and magazines since 1988, including Austin Chronicle, Blurt, The Big Takeover, Trouser Press Record Guide (online), Pop Culture Press, Amplifier, Sleazegrinder, Austin-American Statesman, Austinist, Austincitysearch, Goldmine, FHT Music Notes and, from 2001–2006, his own website, High Bias. As might be surmised by the number of times “Austin” appears in the above list, he lives in Austin, Texas.

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