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Ethan Iverson Quartet explores the American songbook

Susan Saccoccia
Susan Saccoccia
Ethan Iverson Quartet explores the American songbook
Ben Street, Tom Harrell, Ethan Iverson, and Eric McPherson. PHOTO: © MONICA FRISELL/ECM RECORDS

The American songbook is a deep well of inspiration for jazz musicians, and one of this year’s most notable explorations of this heritage is a new CD by the Ethan Iverson Quartet with Tom Harrell entitled “Common Practice.” Produced by ECM from live recordings of the quartet at the Village Vanguard, the CD presents nine jazz standards along with two blues-based compositions by Iverson, who with this venture celebrates the lyrical magic of Tom Harrell, voted 2018 Trumpeter of the Year by the U.S. Jazz Journalists Association.

Last Tuesday night at the Regattabar in Harvard Square, the quartet performed selections from the album for a rapt audience drawn by the virtuoso ensemble and early critical acclaim for the CD, released on Oct. 9.

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Learn more about the quartet’s new release “Common Practice” at:

Iverson, 46, is a pianist, composer and New England Conservatory faculty member whose blog, “Do the Math,” reflects with knowledge and wit on the ever-evolving state of jazz. He and Harrell are both adventurous, boundary-crossing musicians who have founded, led and performed with numerous ensembles. With this quartet, Iverson brings together a rhythm section comprising two accomplished contemporaries — bassist Ben Street and percussionist Eric McPherson — and Harrell, 73, an elder master renowned for the intense and captivating inventiveness of his approach to familiar songs.

Opening with his bluesy composition “Philadelphia Creamer,” Iverson immediately set a muscular, swinging tone that morphed into spare backup to deft melodic uplift by Harrell. Next came Jerome Kern’s “The Song is You,” a rendering that interlaced Harrell’s melodic lyricism with rapid, intricate counterpoint by McPherson on drums. 

Iverson began George Bassman’s “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” with a stride-inflected introduction evoking Thelonious Monk, then shifted into a fluid, swinging refrain, accompanying Harrell as he switched from a trumpet to his flugelhorn, injecting mellow warmth into the ballad with the agility of a vocalist.

Next came a poignant rendering of “I Can’t Get Started,” by Vernon Duke, which Iverson introduced with a slow, arpeggio-laden passage with the feeling of chamber music. He and Harrell traded rippling melodic lines and nearly danceable refrains to McPherson’s whispering drum snares and Street’s delicately textured bass accompaniment.

Shifting to a faster pace, the ensemble performed the Jerome Kern ballad “All the Things You Are,” with Harrell’s trumpet rippling above and around Iverson’s vamping piano chords.

With a suave, Ellingtonian prelude, Iverson launched his blues-inflected “Jed from Teaneck,” then dug in with a strong rhythmic backbeat to Harrell’s fast-moving melodic line. Switching to his flugelhorn, Harrell issued low-pitched jabs echoed by McPherson’s tapping drumsticks.

Slowing down the tempo, the quartet performed Jimmy van Heusen’s “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” which featured a long, tender trumpet solo by Harrell, who then led a lighthearted, swinging rendition of Johnny Green’s “Out of Nowhere.” Iverson’s accompaniment varied from arpeggio color to easygoing vamps and off-beat, dissonant jabs, with bassist Street providing their interplay a supple spine. 

Near the conclusion of the 90-minute set, Iverson noted with humor that the ensemble was here as part of its record release tour, and that he had “a gym bag full of CDs” for sale.

The quartet then explored the intricate rhythms of “Wee,” a composition by bebop percussionist Denzil Best, in a rendering that featured a masterful drum solo by McPherson.

Drawn back by nonstop applause, the quartet performed an encore, Victor Schertzinger’s “I Remember You,” with an infectious blend of tenderness and pulsing rhythmic invention. 

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