I was sad and a little concerned in 2017 when pianist Ethan Iverson left The Bad Plus, the modern jazz trio he helped found nearly 20 years ago. Not to worry, though. He left that ensemble in good hands with Orrin Evans on the bench and is creating vital new music of his own. One place he’s doing that is in this duo with sax player Mark Turner. The two met at New York jam sessions in the ’90s and have played and recorded with the Billy Hart Quartet, but Temporary Kings is their debut as a duo.
Temporary Kings was recorded in a small Swiss studio/concert space with ECM’s signature cool, spacious sound, which fits this set quite well. The nine tracks include six by Iverson, two by Turner and one by “cool tone” pioneer Warne Marsh, one of their mutual influences.
There’s a lot of variety in those mere nine tracks, from contemporary jazz-influenced chamber music to swinging blues. It opens with one of the former, “Lugano,” a melodic homage to the town where the set was recorded, and closes with Turner’s quasi-cinematic tone poem “Seven Points.” Iverson’s delicate touch on the intro to “Lugano” gives it an impressionistic air, and Turner’s sax when it comes in floats it into the clouds. Such a blue bit of mutual improvisation, and it sets the stage for the rest of the date.
The title track follows, another modernist, chamber-like exploration, this one led by Turner. “Turner’s Chamber of Unlikely Delights” has the feel of a hymn in Iverson’s chording, and Turner’s melodic lead is indeed delightful.
To me the heart of this album lies in the confluence of Marsh’s “Dixie’s Dilemma” and Iverson’s “Unclaimed Freight.” The former is built on the chord progression of “All The Things You Are.” Which, I’m not enough of a jazz nerd and certainly not a musician that I can hear a song and say, “Ooh, that’s a contrafact of “All The Things You Are!” Even one as thoroughly covered as that Kern-Hammerstein song, of which I have several versions in my own collection. But it has a Scott Joplin-like quality to it, especially the first chorus’s playful and intricate counterpoint. The improvisation stretches out then, as the two chase each other through more and more daring explorations.
The slinky, melodic blues duet of “Unclaimed Freight” puts me in mind of a slow take on Memphis Blues, until Iverson goes off into a … well, contemplative improvisatory section through bluer and more obscure corners of the tune, only to come back with a sly snippet of the melody, which Turner picks up and heads into his own improvisation. It’s a playful dialog between these two musicians who both value listening over projecting their own ideas.
After that, stick around for Turner’s “Myron’s World,” which I find positively Stravinsky-esque. And don’t miss the crepuscular finale “Seven Points,” which juxtaposes Turner’s bluesy, tuneful playing over Iverson’s clockwork and at times foreboding arpeggios.
This blend of modernist chamber music and cool-toned jazz is a winner to my ear. They’re touring the U.S. and Europe this fall. Find dates on ECM’s Turner-Iverson webpage.