It is a kind of chamber jazz in which ECM specializes, and it is beautifully played.
Pianist Ethan Iverson left the potent and powerful piano trio the Bad Plus at the end of 2017. And while we shouldn’t expect all his subsequent work to mimic his old group’s particular dynamism, there is some surprise in finding out that he can be a player of extraordinary delicacy. He had been leading and recording with another trio (featuring drummer Tootie Heath and bassist Ben Street) that played with jazz classicism and a gentle touch, for example. But even by the standards of that trio, Iverson’s new set of duets on ECM Records with saxophonist Mark Turner is a work that is largely whispered. Temporary Kings makes a clear choice not to raise its voice too much, delivering nine performances that lean toward the austere. It is a kind of chamber jazz in which ECM specializes, and it is beautifully played.
Turner and Iverson collaborated in 2012 on another ECM date, this one led by drummer Billy Hart, All Our Reasons. Playing in a quartet format, the band was well served by the clear-as-a-bell but often cool ECM recording sound. Even when things sound bleak or staid, Hart enters with polyrhythms and joyful accents to kick the otherwise slugging material into a kind of overdrive. Both Turner and Iverson respond with energy and imagination that takes that session further away from the typical ECM sound of gorgeous but measured creativity.
Temporary Kings is a program that stays much more utterly in a meditative, restrained mode. “Yesterday’s Bouquet,” for example, is a piano solo at ruminative tempo that intrigues with a set of searching harmonies that move in waves beneath a carefully written single-note melody line for the right hand. It is beautiful in the way that a lush fabric can be beautiful, with little narrative or drama but simply a pattern, a texture, a shimmer. Much of the recording has this quality.
The very next tune, Iverson’s “Unclaimed Freight,” adds Turner’s tenor saxophone, beginning with an active scale-based melody. It is also rather austere but develops in a more soulful direction that opens up into an improvisation that moves from something plain into something that nips around the edges of the blues, even as it stays true to its theme. Even better is “Myron’s World” (written by Turner), which begins with Turner unaccompanied and then develops more quickly into a magical, impressionistic duet. Here, the two musicians shimmer, yes, in that ECM style, but they also seem more free, more romantically lyrical. Iverson’s solo even becomes spiked and rhythmic, moving in contrapuntal waves in which the left and right hadn’t talked to each other. Turner carves out a rounder set of variations, playing across his registers easily—staying warm and breathy in his tone but developing some bite too. The last minute of the tune is particularly beautiful, as the piano reaches high and the saxophone reaches low, each playing an embroidered counterpoint.
This sequence of tunes, however, are the high points in a program that leans more heavily on moody texture. “Lugano,” the opener, sets Turner’s voice in an upper register that is almost clarinet-like. Iverson plays around his ringing melody with bells of his own, then low rumbles of chords that almost seem like a church organ answering the bells from a tower. Dramatic upward runs from the piano seem to be bringing “Lugano” to the point of climax, but the mood shifts quickly back to ringing expectation. All of it is gorgeous, but it also a bit of a tease. Your ears taste something great and come away wanting too much more.
“Dixie’s Dilemma” begins with a swinging theme for the piano written by saxophonist Warne Marsh—the only composition here not written by Iverson or Turner. The rhythm, however, is articulated delicately, and once Turner enters and begins improvising, the feeling seems half-hearted. The intertwining of the notes chosen by the performers is exquisite but also exquisitely careful. The last pair of tunes on the recording seem like classical tone poems of a sort—beautifully wrought, with moments that glisten or shine, whisper or insinuate. But, to these ears at least, they never bleed, they never evoke strong feeling. They sound evocative but not potent. The movement of Iverson’s very night notes around Turner’s tenor on “Seven Points” is artistic and inventive without creating any heat of feeling.
The ECM canon of music remains a wonder and a treasure. Without the label’s particular sound, creative music and improvised music would be significantly impoverished. But perhaps the chamber/jazz ethic of Manfred Eicher’s label works best when the musicians in his studio are pushing against that sound, forcing it to give way to an urgency. On Temporary Kings, two superb musicians play beautifully but seem more hemmed in by ECM than challenged by it to break free. A fan of both these artists will find this music rich in ideas and invention. But, perhaps, also in search of more passionate expression.