On their third record together as a trio, following a live set of standards and the more recent gem, Tootie’s Tempo, bassist Ben Street and pianist Ethan Iverson are back in their supporting roles flanking journeyman jazz drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath. As I write this he’s just days off celebrating his 80th birthday, and there’s such sprightliness in his playing. On the brushed ballad, Memories of You, there’s a reminder of his early work in the late 50s and through the 60s with the likes of Art Farmer and John Coltrane and on the funkier workouts there’s the sharpness that’s always been there, most obviously on his more muscular jazz playing with Herbie Hancock, Dexter Gordon and his brother Jimmy Heath in the late 60s and early 70s.
Iverson’s main gig is with The Bad Plus and he brings that inquisitiveness to these recordings too – the way he’ll search and probe through an old standard (he’s nose down and sniffing out new spaces on Memories of You, he’s also likely the instigator of some very interesting covers here). And bassist Ben Street sounds right at home here, no real surprise given one of his other main gigs of recent years has been working with another drummer, who in his eighth decade has showed no signs of slowing, the great Billy Hart.
There’s a very Bad Plus-like reading of I Will Survive – yes, that very same disco classic is made over as a slow, hopeful ballad. Iverson’s great skill is in finding new ways to explore old melodies, you’d almost think he has an eye on the kitsch but in fact it’s an ear – always – on the groove, and on how to subvert it, how to let glorious melodies flow and how to attune them for new audiences.
Tootie gets to play some lovely Philly fills and rolling samba feels on a lovely, lively Speak Low, he’s also dynamic across the rims on Bye-Ya, shades of Joe Morello’s sure shimmer and creative precision. And he gets to go full tumble on the closer, Bakai.
It’s a tasteful set – with just enough experimentation to keep it exciting. It’s also, for the most part, a lovely set of piano-trio jazz that reminds me, in places, of The Mac Chrupcala Trio’s One More For The Road. It’s that knowledge that you know is there, the collective safe hands, impeccable selections and an obvious joy that the performers are getting from the playing.