DownBeat March 2021

ple were involved: Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach and Thelonious Monk. But I would say after Bird, the person with the most utterly devastat- ing bebop line, as an improviser, is Bud Powell. And he’s sort of unapproachable. He’s very influential, but he’s also up on a summit. Of course, many people love their Bud Powell. A partial list would include Barry Harris, Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones, Sonny Clark, Cedar Walton, Red Garland, Wynton Kelly, then finally to Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner. All these musicians, you know, would bow down to Bud as being “the source.” I read something you posted online about how, in Powell’s music, momentary imperfections are part of a deliberate- ly unpolished aesthetic. I think anyone who can play jazz at a pretty high level understands what I mean about a cer- tain imperfection being part of a “secret sauce,” especially in Bud’s work. Not everyone would agree; Oscar Peterson famously said that Bud just played too many wrong notes. He was real- ly critical of Bud as a player, which I think is not right. In Umbria, I actually cut a rehearsal because I thought it was sounding so good. And I thought there was no reason to try to force a final level of perfection into it. I thought, “Let’s roll.” The results were good. And the musicians love you when you cut a rehearsal. What was your impression of that orchestra? I understand they’re somewhat of a regular group for various commis- sion projects Umbria has presented in recent years. I think there’s something about Italians and bebop that really fit. It’s dangerous to be too ste- reotypical because there are great musicians everywhere. But if you want to talk about play- ing some actual bebop, I think the country of Italy has a legacy of that. You’ve noted that two of Powell’s most distinctive attri- butes are the vocal quality of his improvised lines and the complexity of his rhythms. Do you feel you were able to convey that in Umbria? It’s not on the album because of a copyright issue, but part of the official [staging] of my arrangement of “Bud Powell In The 21st Century” is that we play a tape of Bud scat-sing- ing, which would then bleed into the French horn feature of “I’ll Keep Loving You.” I want- ed to include the sound of Bud scatting because it’s incredible, and it does clarify certain attri- butes of the music. We tend to think of bebop as a strictly instrumental music, but it’s also a vocal music. It’s also the blues. It’s all of that folkloric information that’s so crucial to get- ting it right. Lewis Nash is an incredible singer. He sings the blues, scats bebop, and he plays the drums that way, too. He has all these accents, and he shapes the line in a way that’s very deep. It’s very important for good bop to have that. I think that as great as Bud Powell is, he is

Ethan Iverson performs at the 2019 Newport Jazz Festival.

With the blessing of Enzo Capua—a pre- senter at Umbria Jazz who helped conceive the Powell project—Iverson brought trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, tenor saxophonist Dayna Stevens, bassist Ben Street and drummer Lewis Nash along for the ride. Together, these five American jazz artists served as a core quintet that integrat- ed itself into a larger ensemble of first-call Italian horn players assembled by the festival’s musical director, Manuele Morbidini. In their collective hands, Powell’s music comes to life in fascinating new ways: as medi- tative chorales (called “Five Simple Spells”) built upon bits of Powell melodies and improvisa- tions, as fully fleshed-out big band orchestra- tions andas straightaheadquintet arrangements. A pair of Iverson big band pieces composed just for the occasion are also part of the program. It all comes together as one gorgeously woven, grand tapestry that’s simultaneously elegant and awe-inspiring. For Jensen, the experience openedher ears to the more subtle aspects of Powell’s work and sparked insights into her own playing. “When I was younger, bebop intimidated me because I didn’t have much technique, and when Ethan askedme to do the project, I was like, ‘I think you might have called the wrong person; I don’t real- ly play bebop,” she said. “But at the same time, I really appreciate the way Bud approached the piano, so it deepened my awareness of the lin- eage. And it helped me get in touch with my inner bebopper—which isn’t really bebop, if that makes sense. After doing this project and digging into the deep details, I realize that this is good music that expands through many dif- ferent genres. I was like, ‘This is just more deep, melodic music that I have to be able to rhythmi- cally wrap myself around as much as I have to technically stop doubting myself.’” Morbidini, who played alto saxophone in the big band, described the rehearsals and perfor- mances as an “extraordinarily stimulating” experience. “Bud Powell’s music has the amaz-

ing ability to renew itself every time you listen to it,” hewrote in an email fromItaly. “There always seems to be some element that’s new in a certain way, compared to the last time. I guess it depends on the (lucky) inability of my/our ears to grasp all that’s in there at once. Dealing with it from the perspective of Ethan’s vision amplified this effect: In every piece we worked on, an unex- pected reference, an implicit assonance or simply something not so evident, resonated. It is a mat- ter of details and surgical underlining—nothing is more seductive.” Iverson discussed his deep dive into Powell’s music and shared personal reflections on his Umbria experience during a late-December phone call with DownBeat from his Brooklyn home. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. includes four tunes that Powell recorded in 1949 in a quintet setting, with Sonny Rollins on tenor saxophone and Fats Navarro on trumpet. Let’s talk about how that material functions within the larger structure of the presentation, and how it served as the backbone for your original orchestrations. That quintet material is the only music Bud wrote for horns. It was incredibly hard music, and you can really hear them struggling, as great as these guys are—Fats Navarro, Sonny Rollins, Roy Haynes and Tommy Potter. It’s a pretty challenging session for everybody, except for maybe Bud. I would say Bud really knows what he wants, and he sounds like that as a player. But it was important to me in this project to treat that with reverence: to be like, we don’t actually need to expand on that quin- tet music; we just should try to play it right. What are some of the more significant contributions to modern jazz piano that come out of Powell? The number one bebop genius in terms of the improvised line is Charlie Parker. You even could say he gave us bebop, although other peo-


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