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Mark Turner: tenor saxophone; Ethan Iverson: piano

The initial musical connection between saxophonist Mark Turner and pianist Ethan Iverson was made in 1990s jam sessions in New York City. A decade after their first meeting, the saxophonist and pianist began an association in the Billy Hart Quartet, the two players featuring on two widely lauded ECM albums by that band. Now with Temporary Kings – their debut on record as a duo – Turner and Iverson explore aesthetic common ground that encompasses the cool-toned intricacies of the Lennie Tristano/Warne Marsh jazz school, as well as the heightened intimacy of modernist chamber music. 

Temporary Kings presents six originals by Iverson (such as the nostalgic solo tune “Yesterday’s Bouquet”) and two by Turner (including “Myron’s World,” which has acquired near-classic status among a generation of jazz players). There’s an off-kilter blues (“Unclaimed Freight”) and a strikingly melodic, almost Ravelian opening track dedicated to the Swiss town where the album was recorded (“Lugano”), plus an interpretation of Marsh’s playfully serpentine “Dixie’s Dilemma.”  

Undergirding their common history onstage and in the studio, Iverson and Turner share aesthetic enthusiasms, ranging from literary science fiction to a certain free-minded classicism in music. The sessions for Temporary Kings at the RSI Svizzera studio with Manfred Eicher were characteristically marked by deep listening and an appreciation for what Iverson calls “magical confluences” and “happy surprises,” such as the dovetailing melodic phrases in the improvisations of “Lugano.” Iverson adds: “We were playing in a spacious, almost abstract way, not going for a hard-edged jazz sound at all. That said, there’s a blues on the album, my tune ‘Unclaimed Freight,’ and ‘Dixie’s Dilemma’ is a contrafact on ‘All the Things You Are.’ But that chamber-music vibe is there, too. The school of Tristano, Marsh and Lee Konitz has its connections to the world of modernist chamber music, and we think it’s important to underscore these connections.” 

Turner – whose tune “Lennie’s Groove” on the Billy Hart Quartet’s One Is the Other album was a nod to the influence of Tristano – adds: “The Warne Marsh aesthetic is part of both our worlds, and we wanted to include a jazz classic on the album, to underscore our connection to that aesthetic. I like ‘Dixie’s Dilemma’ for its dry-toned, laconic quality, a sound he shared with Tristano and Konitz. The appeal of the tune like that is based more on its content than drama, so the content has to be very strong, melodically, harmonically and rhythmically.”

About their interaction as a duo, Iverson says: “Mark makes me listen harder, something I try to do all the time, but if you’re going mano-a-mano with Mark Turner, your ears have to be fine-tuned, very sharp. Mark is dedicated to truth and beauty on a level higher than most people. It’s not only what he plays – it’s what he represents, his integrity artistically and personally. That’s why, along with his great skills as an improviser, so many musicians hold him in such esteem.” For his part, Turner says: “Among the things I like about Ethan is that he makes a point of being personal, of playing things that are musically his own, particularly when it comes to the harmonic realm and voice-leading. Even if he plays the same chords as another piano player, they sound distinctive when he uses them.”
Along with the deeply intricate “Myron’s World” – which Iverson calls “so challenging to play but also incredibly satisfying” – Turner also contributed the closing piece, “Seven Points,” a tone poem that has a mysterious, almost cinematic tension and a beautiful melody that at times seems to share the air, with opener “Lugano,” of early 20th-century Parisian modernism.

Along with “Lugano,” Iverson’s originals on the album include the elliptical “Temporary Kings,” “Third Familiar” and “Turner’s Chamber of Unlikely Delights,” each piece having the feel of contemporary chamber music, albeit with an essentially free spirit – the two players following each other in spirals of improvisation off the written material. The purity of Turner’s tone is ideal in these pieces, with Iverson’s keyboard tracery to match. Then there is the pianist’s blues in G, “Unclaimed Freight.” Recalling the trick of capturing that distinctly jazzy piece, Turner says: “It can be hard to get the feeling of movement in the music when you’re in the studio, without the vibe of an audience. But with Ethan’s blues, I think we achieved it. You could almost hear a drummer – I felt a little wind at my back.”

The Ohio-born, Los Angeles-raised Turner is one of the most admired saxophonists of his generation, renowned for his exploratory intellect and intimate expressivity on the full range of the tenor horn. For ECM, the New York-based musician released his sixth album as a leader, Lathe of Heaven, in 2014. The quartet for Lathe of Heaven included trumpeter Avishai Cohen, bassist Joe Martin and drummer Marcus Gilmore, with The Guardian describing the band appreciatively as “sounding like Birth of the Cool floated over a 21st-century rhythmic concept.” That album followed two for the label in the cooperative trio Fly with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard (Sky & Country and Year of the Snake), along with appearances on key ECM recordings by Billy Hart (All of Our Reasons and One Is the Other) and Enrico Rava (New York Days). About Turner, National Public Radio has said: “He has an innovative sonic signature, a certain floating chromaticism, rhythmic mindfulness and lightness of tone, filled with subtleties. Basically, his music has personality, which keeps the best musicians ringing his phone, and the aspiring ones listening hard.”

A native of Wisconsin but based in New York City since 1991, Ethan Iverson was long known as one-third of The Bad Plus, which he founded in 2000 with bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King. The group produced a dozen studio albums and two live albums together before Iverson left the band at the end of 2017. Beyond that body of work, Iverson has worked with artists from Lee Konitz, Albert “Tootie” Heath and Ron Carter to Joshua Redman, Kurt Rosenwinkel and Tim Berne, along with serving as music director for the Mark Morris Dance Group. A member of the Billy Hart Quartet since 2003, Iverson has recorded three albums with the group, including the most recent two for ECM. The pianist teaches at the New England Conservatory, and he has established Do the Math as one of the foremost blogs in jazz over the past decade.

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