There are a number of elements on Technically Acceptable, the second Blue Note Records release from pianist/composer Ethan Iverson, that would feel equally at home during any point in the label’s storied history. There’s an ample helping of the blues, a tune built on rhythm changes, spirited trio interactions, a reimagined song from the hit parade, even a rendition of Thelonious Monk’s iconic “‘Round Midnight.”
This being an Ethan Iverson date, however, none of those classic idioms are revived without a twist of some kind. The album’s first half, a nearly LP-length trio outing with bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Kush Abadey, is balanced on the back end by the first-ever piano sonata in the Blue Note catalog. The blues and rhythm changes are refracted through an irreverent contemporary lens, while the standard in question is the Robert Flack ballad “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” given a 60s pop vibe in partnership with bassist Simón Willson and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza.
And that version of “‘Round Midnight?” It features another Blue Note first, a theremin in the role of the main melodic instrument courtesy of virtuoso pianist and multi-instrumentalist Rob Schwimmer.
“I’m interested in trying to wrangle these almost archaic forms in a modernist way,” Iverson explains. “When I play a 12-bar blues with Thomas and Kush, it doesn’t sound like 1944 in the slightest. It sounds like 2023. But at the same time, it is a serious throwback. That’s where I connect to someone like Jaki Byard, who could play the most up-to-date creative music with Eric Dolphy or play behind a blues singer and be totally comfortable. And when he played solo or trio, it all came out at once.”
The history-spanning wealth of influences and eras that Iverson has investigated as pianist, composer and critic all emerge, in often surprising and delightful ways, throughout Technically Acceptable. Released just over 30 years since Iverson’s 1993 debut School Work, the album is, in a sense, three albums in one. The first third comprises a set of new originals with Morgan and Abadey, Iverson’s new working trio.
In the past Iverson has used his leader dates as a way to connect with and learn from elders like Billy Hart and Jack DeJohnette. For the first time he’s working solely with younger musicians, who find ample space for freewheeling invention even within the concise forms of these short tunes, whose pop-like precision harkens back to his days with The Bad Plus.
“The Bad Plus’ music was very tightly constructed,” Iverson says. “We really knew how to reach an audience in a different way. Live we’ll inevitably stretch out, but I myself enjoy tunes that you can’t stop listening to for the duration of the piece.”
That’s certainly true of the album’s infectious opener, “Conundrum,” which the composer posits as the theme song for an imaginary game show. (He hasn’t figured out the rules, but he’s willing to work with interested producers.) That’s followed by the angular jump blues of “Victory is Assured (Alla Breve)” which takes us back to Kansas City by way of the post-war avant-garde. “It’s Fine To Decline” is an even more abstracted blues, while the title track plays over rhythm changes with an almost Cubist range of perspective.
“Who Are You, Really?” appends a Dexter Gordon quote to a joyously catchy tune that dances around Morgan’s robust bass line, and “The Chicago Style” embeds at least one chord from composer Ralph Shapey into an exploratory excursion that feels almost, but not quite, entirely unlike the Windy City experiments of the AACM and others. The blissful, upward gaze of “The Way Things Are” ends this segment with Iverson’s shruggingly accepting take on the Serenity Prayer.
The following three tunes feature Willson, Sperrazza and Schwimmer, Iverson’s compatriots on projects with the Mark Morris Dance Group. Their experience on “The Look of Love,” choreographed to Iverson’s arrangements of Burt Bacharach’s music (given the imprimatur of the late songwriter himself), infuses the trio’s “Killing Me Softly.” Iverson first heard the song not via Flack’s classic hit but in a jazz rendition by Hampton Hawes – his own take splits the difference. A similarly velvety feel cushions Iverson’s wistful “The Feeling Is Mutual.” In between comes the startling duo of Iverson’s piano and Schwimmer’s keening theremin on Monk’s immortal piece, in a version like none of the countless others.
The album concludes with Iverson’s first Piano Sonata, a through-composed, three-movement piece constructed from the composer’s era-fusing jazz vocabulary. In describing the piece, Iverson details a history of 20th century American classical music that left behind the innovations of Gershwin, Copland and James P. Johnson for “hardcore modernism” of Elliott Carter and Milton Babbitt and then the severe minimalism of Philip Glass and Steve Reich.
“Gershwin, Copland and Johnson really tried to blend concert and vernacular idioms,” he explains. “Then after World War II, high modernism and then relatively simple minimalism ruled the roost, and that mix got shunted aside. In my humble way, I’m trying to pick up that 1930’s thread.”
In the process, through a repertoire that alights on myriad points on the jazz and classical timelines in playful yet inventive ways, Iverson allows himself the credential that christens the album. “If I’m taking the measure of my own work: I’m on a journey, but I don’t think it’s finished yet. My first album was called School Work; maybe in another ten years I’ll create the album Flawless Masterpiece. For now, I’m Technically Acceptable.”
1 Conundrum 1:31
2 Victory is Assured (Alla Breve) 2:39
3 Technically Acceptable 4:18
4 Who Are You, Really? 3:25
5 The Chicago Style 2:37
6 It’s Fine to Decline 2:58
7 The Way Things Are 3:50
8 Killing Me Softly With His Song 3:50
9 ‘Round Midnight 4:22
10 The Feeling is Mutual 4:15
11 Piano Sonata: Allegro Moderato 6:30
12 Piano Sonata: Andante 4:10
13 Piano Sonata: Rondo 4:42
Ethan Iverson (p)
Thomas Morgan (b)
Kush Abadey (ds)
Simón Willson( b)
Vinnie Sperrazza (ds)