Monk and Coltrane. Hancock and Shorter. Fitzgerald and Armstrong. Jazz has a long tradition of legendary duos. Now, saxophonist Mark Turner and pianist Ethan Iverson are looking to place their own stamp on jazz royalty.
Fresh off the release of their inaugural album “Temporary Kings,” Turner and Iverson are tapping into a format that will allow them to learn more about themselves and each other as musicians. This week, they’ll be sharing the fruits of their studies over the course of six performances at Spoleto Festival USA.
Larry Blumenfeld, jazz writer for the Wall Street Journal and jazz programming advisor to Spoleto Festival USA, said the timing of these performances couldn’t be any better.
“These two musicians are in a really good spot to do this,” Blumenfeld said. “They’re established, they have identities and they want to push in different directions. The duet platform is a really good opportunity to have a conversation with the audience, with each other, and not be trapped in one style.”
At 53 and 46 respectively, the two musicians have a great deal of experience in jazz. Iverson is an eclectic musician who has played alongside the likes of bassists Charlie Haden and Ron Carter. As a composer, he wrote the music for “Pepperland,” Mark Morris’s staged tribute to the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ album, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
He is perhaps best known as the former keyboardist of the avant-garde jazz trio, The Bad Plus. The band is heavily influenced by rock and pop music, covering groups and artists like David Bowie, Queen, Blondie and Nirvana. Despite modest critical and commercial success, Iverson decided to leave the group in 2016.
“A lot of the stuff with The Bad Plus was straight up rock or electronica,” said Iverson, who also curates a popular music blog titled Do the M@th. “I loved doing that, but 17 years was enough of it. This is the first time I’ll be touring as a co-leader.”
Iverson said that Turner’s immense talent fostered an immediate chemistry.
“Mark has perfect pitch, so I can play anything and he’ll match it,” he said. “It keeps me that much sharper.”
Turner has worked with a slew of artists across his 50-plus album discography as a bandleader and sideman. Drawing comparisons to sax legends like Warne Marsh and John Coltrane, Turner unfurls strings of notes with ease, while adding in enough rhythmic and harmonic complexity to keep listeners alert.
Blumenfeld said that while Turner isn’t necessarily a household name, the Berklee grad is a “thoughtful musician” and an innovator who has made a substantial impact on how modern saxophonists play. Now, Turner and Iverson are looking toward the horizon.
“It really does sound like two top-tier musicians in their primes having a conversation about where they want to go next,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if this part sounds like blues, or that part sounds like classical. It’s about them having a conversation.”
Turner and Iverson are primed to share many more conversations. With each one comes opportunities for growth, reward and perhaps even some treacherous musical moments. For Iverson, that’s the thrill of working with Turner.
“Mark and I do a lot of off-the-cuff improvising,” Iverson said. “One of us will say something and the other responds in the moment. The fewer people that are in the band, the greater those risks you can take. We’re both in charge of the journey, and we trust each other.”