Ethan Iverson and Lee Konitz back in the Tristano school | Bleader

Ethan Iverson and Lee Konitz back in the Tristano school

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Ethan Iverson, best known as a founding member of the pomo trio the Bad Plus, is not only one hell of a pianist but one of the most lucid, thoughtful, and studious jazz writers on the planet. He has a knack for making egghead obsession and technical analysis clear, interesting, enlightening, even entertaining. Through his excellent blog, Do the Math, he's offered in-depth interviews with some of jazz's most important living practitioners as well as probing essays that get to the heart of some of the music's most dynamic artists. Iverson is a fan, but he's not blinded by ardor, and that's something you can see in his critical commentary on the brilliant pianist Lennie Tristano, where he disputes some of the negative generalizations the innovator made in vintage interviews. But Iverson clearly loves Tristano's music and the work of his two key disciples, saxophonists Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz. In fact, he's both played with the latter and interviewed him several times. Costumes Are Mandatory (HighNote), a fantastic new album due out Tuesday, builds on their relationship.

In the final paragraph of his liner notes Iverson writes, "It should be clear from these notes that I was the instigator of this record date." Iverson, Konitz, bassist Larry Grenadier, and drummer Jorge Rossy (the latter two were the original rhythm section in Brad Mehldau's trio) spent two days in a recording studio in August 2012, and the 14 tracks that ended up on the album reflect a mixture of technical rigor and easygoing rapport, nearly all of them steeped in the ideas and techniques of Tristano. There's the bald salute of Iverson's brief solo piece "It's You (Tempo Complex)," in which he pays tribute to Tristano's early experiments with overdubbing by superimposing two improvised variants of the theme to wonderfully dizzying effect, while "Bats," a trio piece that begins with a metronome keeping time before Rossy kicks in, acknowledges Tristano's preference for the most stripped-down rhythm sections, with the bassist playing simple walking lines and drummer keeping swing time on cymbals. (Of course, Konitz doesn't have that problem—he famously worked with the powerhouse Elvin Jones on one of his best albums, Motion, from 1961.) While a handful of tracks explicitly revisit Tristano, most of the album assesses his value from the standpoint of the present, displaying and tweaking his notions with the benefit of 60 years of history and development. His concepts and sound seem more alive than ever.

The album opens with one of two excellent takes on Iverson's "Blueberry Ice Cream," which, he notes, required him to convince Konitz to play a blues, something the saxophonist prefers not to do these days; it's a delightful slice of Tristano-style jazz, sleek and delicate. One of my favorite tracks is the version of "Try a Little Tenderness," where Konitz plays one solo with a mute and second without—but both are marvels of melodic invention. Indeed, even as his tone has become fuzzier with age, Konitz has only seemed to gain in his ability to find wrinkles in age-old melodies. Elsewhere, there's a lovely duo version of "Body and Soul" between Konitz and Grenadier, as well as a surprising version of the Fats Domino standard "Blueberry Hill" ("I asked Lee to play on it but he declined: 'Sounds like something the Bad Plus should play instead'"). While this album may lack the formal experimentation of the Bad Plus or the distinctive mood and repertoire featured on last year's All Our Reasons (ECM), the Billy Hart Quartet date featuring Iverson, it's still an utter joy filled with surprises, and a reminder that musicians of this caliber can wring riches from the most familiar models. I don't know that I've enjoyed a straight-ahead jazz record more this year. Below you can check out "It's You," a Tristano-esque adaptation of "It's You or No One" in which Konitz doesn't bother stating the melody until the end. For his part, Iverson's solo is admittedly closer to Monk rather than Tristano.

Today's playlist:

Nico Muhly, Drones (Community Bedroom)
Bobby Womack, The Bravest Man in the Universe (XL)
Federico Ughi, Songs for Four Cities (Skycap)
Weird Weeds, Weird Weeds (Sedimental)
Ivar Grydeland, Bathymetric Modes (Hubro)

Peter Margasak writes about jazz every Friday.

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