I took in a set of avant-garde acoustic jazz by trumpeter Tom Harrell and his piano-less quartet at the Village Vanguard in 2018. It was a mesmerizing but at times puzzlingly opaque (for me) set from Harrell, who was voted Trumpeter of the Year in 2018 by the U.S. Jazz Journalists Association. I was curious, then, to hear how Harrell approached this live set of mostly standards in a co-leader date with the great post-modern pianist Ethan Iverson. Would I recognize any of these tunes, or would they all be “reharmonized” like something by Miroslav Vitous or the Art Ensemble of Chicago?
My concerns were misplaced, happy to say. This is a beautiful recording of standards from the swing and bop eras (and a couple of Iverson compositions in that spirit), played in a modern way but with respect to their history. I can’t say it any better than Kevin Sun did in the liner notes where he calls it an “overlapping of the traditional and the avant-garde, the premodern and the postmodern, and the old and the new meeting at a single point.”
This is Iverson’s fourth recording for ECM since leaving The Bad Plus, including 2018’s excellent duo date with saxophonist Mark Turner Temporary Kings and a couple of appearances with the Billy Hart Quartet. Iverson, Harrell, and the Village Vanguard go way back, Iverson says.
“The first night I came to New York in the fall of 1991, I was an 18-year-old from Wisconsin. I had never been to the big city, but I knew I loved jazz. That night, I went to the Village Vanguard, and there was a quintet there – with Joe Lovano, Tom Harrell, John Abercrombie, Rufus Reid and Ed Blackwell – playing great jazz. It was one of those unforgettable nights. My new album, Common Practice, is a love letter to that kind of straight-ahead New York City jazz.” You can also read a lengthy interview that Iverson conducted with Harrell in 2016 for The NewYork City Jazz Record here.
Behind Iverson and Harrell is an amazing rhythm section of Ben Street on bass and Eric McPherson on drums, and their performance on bebop drummer Denzil Best’s “Wee” make it my personal favorite on a disc full of standouts. When Harrell and Iverson are playing with this peppy melody – which was a crowd favorite when Dizzie Gillespie, Charlie Parker and the rest of The Quintet played Massey Hall – and running through their solos, McPherson highlights the kind of subtle cymbal work the Best was known for but also puts his own stamp on the piece with a remarkable solo that runs from melodic to far-out; and throughout, Street plays a driving four-on beat with occasional sustains and bends that call to mind Ron Carter.
This record was made during a week-long stand at the Vanguard in January 2017. Each evening’s set started with a mid-tempo 12-bar blues, and two examples are included here, both Iverson compositions: “Philadelphia Creamer” and “Jed From Teaneck.” Hard bop doesn’t get much better than Harrell’s solos on these two. On the slow-burning “Philadelphia Creamer” in particular, he relaxes into the groove laid down by McPherson and Street, easing effortlessly from sixteenth-note triplet runs to long, held single notes that cross multiple bars. All of which gives Iverson a lot to work with on his answering solos.
There are highlights galore, including a sweetly upbeat “All The Things You Are,” a Monk-like impressionistic “Sentimental Journey” with Iverson fully in the lead, and an irrestibly swinging “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You,” with Harrell likewise out front; and beautiful treatments of some ballads, topped by the opener “The Man I Love” and the lovely “Polka Dots And Moonbeams” for which Iverson extolls Harrell’s emotional openness: “He’s very vulnerable up there on stage. It’s kind of like when you see an older movie with an action hero like Steve McQueen or Lee Marvin – they’re tough guys, but you can see in their faces that they’re hurting. Tom has some of that in his own way.” The tenderness with which Iverson and crew lay the groundwork for Harrell’s solo on “Polka Dots” is equally remarkable. Harrell shows a bit of dry wit in his solo on another ballad, “Out Of Nowhere,” tossing in snippets of “Wee,” “It Might As Well Be Spring,” and probably more.
If you’re into classic jazz of whatever sort, Common Practice is sure to please. It’s a joyful and contemplative exploration of just how durable this kind of music is in the right hands.