The third part of Ethan Iverson’s Kings Place residency during this year’s London Jazz Festival went under the name of Ethan’s Last Rent Party, but rather than it being a bring-a-bottle, pay-what-you-can-at-the-door event being put on in order to assuage the venue’s doubtless huge rates bill, it turned out to be – with Iverson joined on stage by British pianists, Adam Fairhall and Alexander Hawkins – an exhilarating, sometimes thrilling, examination of the links between British music in the first decades of the last century and jazz, between the likes of Percy Grainger of English Country Garden fame and syncopation. And one of the most musically satisfying and surprising, enjoyable, educative and entertaining musical events I’ve attended.
Iverson – he late of The Bad Plus – clearly knows, as anyone familiar with his blog, Do The M@th, will know, a lot about a lot of things, things musical in particular; one of his more obsessive areas of interest [about as obsessive as his interest in crime fiction] seeming to be British music & composition. Who knew, for instance [well, obviously, Iverson did] that when Will Marion Cooke’s African-American revue, In Dahomey, played London’s Shaftesbury Theatre on the 16th May, 1903, Percy Grainger was in the audience and was inspired to write a piano piece of the same name in a syncopated, ‘raggy’ style. Nor that in 1923 Constant Lambert went to the London Pavilion to see Dover Street to Dixie, featuring the orchestra of black musicians led by Will Vodery. An experience, Iverson says, which led Lambert towards the use of syncopation in his work, including the 1929 Piano Sonata.
The link, Iverson says, between Cook, Vodery, Grainger and Lambert is the Duke, Duke Ellington. But, instead of me further pillaging his blog, why don’t I step aside in favour of Iverson’s own words?
Duke Ellington is a linking theme. Will Marion Cook and Will Vodery were two of Ellington’s teachers and mentors. Both Grainger and Lambert knew and respected Ellington. There’s a picture of Grainger with Ellington when Grainger invited Ellington to he NYU classroom in 1932. Lambert (who had a major career as a feisty critic) was one of Ellington’s most vocal supporter in the 1930s, writing in the famously caustic Music Ho! that Ellington ” … has crystallised the popular music of our time and set up a standard by which we may judge not only other jazz composers but also those highbrow composers, whether American or European, who indulge in what is roughly known as ‘symphonic jazz'”
So, what actually happened? Iverson introduced the subject before chatting a while with Fairhall and Hawkins. Then he played Grainger’s In Dahomey and the first movement of Lambert’s Piano Sonata; Hawkins [stretching further back in time] played William Byrd’s ‘First Pavan & Galliard’, with a nod towards the recording by Glenn Gould; Fairhall, to my delight, played Winifred Atwell and Billy Mayerl; they each played a composition by Ray Noble, Iverson doing the honours with ‘Cherokee; and, finally, all three sat at the same piano to take Grainger’s ‘Country Gardens’ to places I doubt it’s composer would or could have envisaged.