You cannot play jazz without playing standards. They form the bedrock of American music, and therefore must be listened to and learned. But standards can easily feel tired and uninspired in the wrong hands. Because it’s jazz, an art form in which improvisation is integral, even standard compositions require players to breathe new life into them every time. To play standards well, and make them interesting, is a difficult task.
“If you can play the great American standards beautiful on the piano, that is a real accomplishment,” jazz pianist Ethan Iverson told SF Weekly. “These tunes are complicated in many ways.”
Iverson’s day job is playing piano in The Bad Plus, a jazz trio known for its re-workings of well-known pop and rock songs. They’re not a cover band: their versions of songs aim to take the music in new or different directions. Their version of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” for example, holds true to the key melody line but expands into open pockets of improvisation that give the ’80s hit a more melancholy timbre.
On August 20, 21, and 22, Iverson will do solo “cocktail piano” performances of classic American songbook material in the piano lounge at the SFJAZZ Centre. He will perform a set from artists like Scott Joplin but will also take requests from the audience.
On his blog, Do The Math, Iverson describes cocktail piano as a “beautiful, subtle art” that can be – and ought to be – subversive.
“Thelonious Monk played standards and subverted the emotions,” Iverson said. “When he plays ‘Just a Gigolo,’ it’s got layers. It’s on his own terms, and it’s as deep as you want to take it.”
Iverson and his band mates in The Bad Plus essentially apply the same technique to contemporary pop and rock music: they take “standards” like Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Radiohead’s “Karma Police,” and Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” and run them through a jazz filter. They’re certainly not the first jazz artists to dip their feet into the pool of pop music: Louis Armstrong’s version of the tune “Hello Dolly” is in the Grammy Hall of Fame. The Bad Plus have recorded nearly a dozen albums, and were artists in residence at Duke University in 2010 and 2011.
“Learning the standard tunes is how you learn the language of jazz,” Iverson said. “It’s not like classical, where you just play Bach or Mozart. As you learn the great jazz songs, you play it your own way almost from the beginning.”
Ethan Iverson performs August 20, 21, and 22 in the Joe Henderson Lab at the SFJAZZ Centre.
Photo courtesy of SFJAZZ Center