Acoustic Sounds

Ethan Iverson

Technically Acceptable



Label: Blue Note

Produced By: Ethan Iverson

Engineered By: Andreas Meyer

Mixed By: Andreas Meyer

Mastered By: Andreas Meyer

By: Fred Kaplan

March 14th, 2024





Ethan Iverson's Fling with Modern Tradition

The former Bad Plus pianist makes his grandest album yet

Ethan Iverson may be best known as the original pianist for The Bad Plus, a trio that made an improbably huge splash in the early 2000s by grafting jazz rhythms onto such pop and punk tunes as Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” Aphex Twin’s “Flim,” and Abba’s “Knowing Me Knowing You”—and doing it with energy, wit, virtuosity, and genuine cross-genre feel for idiom: no nudge-wink po-mo irony. The group’s drummer and bassist, Dave King and Reid Anderson, had deep roots in jazz and rock. Iverson was the ringer: he looked like a poster boy for downtown hip—goatee, shaved head, black horn-rimmed glasses—but he knew nothing about rock. He was more into 20th-century classical music. (He’d never heard of Nirvana before King and Anderson took up the band’s hit; he told me in an interview that he liked, and played up, Kurt Cobain’s “Stravinskian fifths”).

Iverson acquired some fame and fortune, certainly by a jazzman’s standards, from his nearly two decades with the band, but he quit in 2017. He was tired of playing rock (even fusion-modified rock) and wanted to immerse himself in the music that had drawn him to move from Wisconsin to New York in the first place—tradition-steeped modern jazz. He wrangled sideman gigs, eventually earning a permanent slot in drummer Billy Hart’s quartet. He arranged duet dates with older masters. (I saw him play at Mezzrow, a very small club in the Village, with Ron Carter, who didn’t take anything for granted; he played at peak power.) He wrote big-band arrangements of Bud Powell tunes. (The band was about to tour, until COVID struck. They did record an album, though.) In 2022, he lived what would have been a jazzman’s dream in an earlier era: he signed with Blue Note Records.

Iverson’s second album for Blue Note, Technically Acceptable, is his first album that nearly approximates the full range of his prowess and sensibilities.

He is encyclopedic on jazz of all styles (his blog, once called “Do the Math,” now “Transitional Technology,” features some of the most informed and astute jazz criticism out there), he can transcribe or memorize pieces of the most daunting complexity, he’s a superb pianist (technically much more than merely “acceptable,” as an improviser and a recitalist), and he’s progressing as a composer.

All three members of The Bad Plus composed a lot of their own music (“Technically Acceptable” dates from those days). Much of it was dry, witty; a lot of it sounded like movie-soundtrack music—some of the liner notes spelled out some plot lines—and the band liked that, they thought jazz should be more dramatic, more fun.

All but two of the 11 pieces on this new album are Iverson originals. Some of them sound a bit like Bad Plus music—the same pithy wit and drama—but they’re more sophisticated; he’s tapping deeper into tradition; he’s hoping to become part of the tradition himself, and to a large extent he succeeds. The first track is “Conundrum,” which, he calls in his liner notes, “the proposed theme for an (as get un-produced) TV quiz show,” though I think that sells it short. I see it as the theme for scenes where the athlete trains for the big fight, or where a romantic guy runs to the train station to stop the girl from leaving town.

“Victory Is Assured” (a phrase that the late Stanley Crouch, a critic and a friend of Iverson’s, signed off with) is a catchy Kansas City jump blues. The title track is something else: a hard-gentle swing straight out of Basie, like I’ve never heard anyone play today.

Skipping down a bit, “The Way Things Are” and “The Feeling Is Mutual,” sound like standards (at first I thought they were and went hunting for who wrote them), the first gently elegiac, the second unabashedly romantic, though not gushily; it beams with sweet contentment.

Toward the end come three surprises. First, there’s a lovely cover of “Killing Me Softly with His Song.” (Just like Iverson: he learned the tune from jazz pianist Hampton Hawes; he’d never heard of the Roberta Flack version).

Second, there’s Monk’s “Round Midnight” with Rob Schwimmer coaxing the melody on a theremin, which sounds more like a woman’s voice than any theremin I’ve heard. (If a theremin has ever recorded that song, or if Blue Note has ever recorded a theremin, no one can remember when). Finally, in another first for Blue Note, Iverson ends the album with a piano sonata—a three-movement, through-composed work. (You can listen while following along on a scrolling-score video, which Blue Note placed on YouTube.)

Iverson means to invoke the legacies of Gershwin, Copland, and James P. Johnson, who, as he puts it in a bio-note, “tried to blend concert and vernacular idioms” before post-War high modernism declared such notions obsolete—though Iverson weavers in threads of modernism too. This is jazz music—though, intriguingly, the sonatas inspired the New York Times to include Technically Acceptable in a list of recommended recent classical albums.

In a recent interview with critic Nate Chinen, Iverson, who is 51, singled out several jazz pianists of his generation—David Virelles, Craig Taborn, Vijay Iyer, Kris Davis (he could also have mentioned Dan Tepfer)—who, facing the limits of improvisation's possibilities, are "obsessed with trying to integrate formal composition." Iverson's sonata pushes this compulsion to a new layer of formality.

For most of the non-sonata pieces, Iverson plays with his working trio-mates, bassist Thomas Morgan and Kush Abadey, except on “Killing Me” and “The Feeling,” where he’s joined by Simon Willson and Vinnie Sperrazza, whom he met while serving as musical director for the Mark Morris dance company. They all provide fine ballast; on that Basie-esque number, they push him into new-old orbits.

Except for the sonata, none of the tracks lasts longer than 4-1/2 minutes. Several last under three minutes. Iverson is not a Homeric pianist. He states his theme, takes a stab or two at variations, then moves on. The album feels, in this sense, like a musical sketchbook, but there’s an appealing intimacy to this.

The sound quality is, to paraphrase the album title, sonically acceptable. The instruments are well balanced, the bass vivid, the piano tones and overtones clear, but you won’t feel as if they’re in the room with you, and the drums are a bit paper thin. Nonetheless, the music comes through.

Music Specifications

Catalog No: 00602455812186


Channels: Stereo


  • 2024-03-14 11:57:02 PM

    Come on wrote:

    The title track is my favorite, therefore alone good you pointed to this album, thanks!

  • 2024-03-15 06:53:21 PM

    bill schweitzer wrote:

    I highly recommend “Transitional Technology,” for it's great music incites and thoughts on Noir fiction and movies.

  • 2024-03-15 07:12:31 PM

    bill schweitzer wrote:

    What is the name of the album of big band Bud Powell arrangements?