School is in session at the venerable Village Vanguard in Greenwich Village this week, as pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Ben Street and drummer Albert "Tootie" Heath merrily romp and ruminate their collective way through a master class in unhackneyed jazz repertoire. By now, Iverson needs no introduction; his work in brainy, brawny collective trio The Bad Plus has revealed his melodic, harmonic and rhythmic wiles, and he's proved eager to absorb the lessons that older generations of players can impart on the bandstand. Iverson's also one of music's keenest bloggers; his interviews with forebears and peers are not to be missed.
Ben Street is the kind of bassist everyone wants to work with: a player capable of complementing any setting, and Iverson's bandmate in the exceptional Billy Hart Quartet (about which my Time Out New York colleague Hank Shteamer wrote memorably, here.) Albert "Tootie" Heath, as Iverson mentioned from the bandstand on Wednesday night, played on John Coltrane's first session in 1957; went on to work with the likes of Wes Montgomery, Dexter Gordon, Mal Waldron and the Art Farmer/Benny Golson Jazztet, among others; and since 1975 has provided the supple backbeat for famed family act the Heath Brothers.
Wednesday, the second night of the trio's current Vanguard run, was the scene for a live broadcast on WBGO-FM series The Checkout, guest-hosted by Matt Wilson while regular host Josh Jackson wanders abroad. (A related NPR Music live webchat was hosted as ever by Dr. LP.) What struck me initially and quickly during the first set was an unusual concision: The trio got through five tunes in the first 24 minutes, a period many bands will devote to just the first two charts of their sets. Nothing wrong with expressive longeur, but there was something downright refreshing about the way Iverson, Street and Heath compressed richness and variety into album-track-sized parcels.
From a moody original opener, "South Hampton," inspired by the late, great pianist Hampton Hawes, Iverson proceeded to call a set of standards that veered pleasantly, if not wildly, from the beaten path. "It was all the most obvious tunes by those guys," Iverson would say later during a quick hang in the Vanguard's kitchen. It was clear, too, that he was favoring some charts by leaders with whom Heath had a historical association, like Waldron and Golson.
But seriously, who else calls tunes by James P. Johnson (a tambourine-jingling "Charleston"), Eubie Blake (a rhapsodic, harmonically dense "Memories of You"), Sonny Rollins ("No Moe") and Waldron ("Fire Waltz"), let alone back to back? Further highlights included a sensuous airing of Tom Jobim's "Insensatez," with gorgeously hushed work from Heath, and "It Should've Happened a Long Time Ago," a haunting Paul Motian chart subtly reshaped by Heath's rhythmic conception.
True, I don't get around much anymore – or at least not as much as I used to and still want to on nights like this. But I feel confident in proclaiming that, start to finish, this was among the most satisfying jazz sets I've heard in many moons. Happily, it's archived on the NPR Music site, where anyone can drop in and listen again and again. But for anyone in New York City between now and Sunday night, get yourself down to the Vanguard and hear this trio do its thing for real.
South Hampton (Iverson)
Nice Work If You Can Get It (Gershwin)
Shiny Stockings (Foster)
The Charleston (Johnson)
Memories of You (Blake)
No Moe (Rollins)
Fire Waltz (Waldron)
Along Came Betty (Golson)
It Should've Happened a Long Time Ago (Motian)
Now's the Time (Parker)
Ethan Iverson, Ben Street and Tootie Heath play the Village Vanguard through Sunday, August 26.