The ivories, tickled

Ethan Iverson doesn't make very much use of YouTube.  It's a shame, because the guy's got a lot to say.

I got to see him perform a couple years ago, and it was a delight.  He was very approachable and pleasant, sitting at the piano with a legal pad on his knee and asking the audience for requests.  He wrote down at least a dozen different titles.  (Two, as I recall, were "All The Things You Are" and "Diamond Dogs".)  He studied them for a moment, rewrote the list in some kind of order he had intuited, and said, "That looks like a pretty good set list.  Let's go."  Then he played the whole list, start to finish, improvising bridges between the tunes, and chatting about them as he played.

It was a lot more than a parlor trick, though it definitely had an air of that.  He wasn't just performing these tunes, he was imposing his own very opinionated idea of what was interesting about them.  "I think this needs to be a sort of a nocturne," he said at one point, and he made it so.

His web site,, aka "Do The Math," aka DTM, is a little more informative than most musicians' sites.  It contains hundreds of essays that he's written.  Interviews with musicians, articles about composition, advice for students.  

He has strong opinions.  Here's one:  "[Glenn Gould's] Consort Of Musicke By William Byrde And Orlando Gibbons is one of the greatest records ever made."  I don't know about you, but I didn't even know this record existed.  Putting a pin in that one for later.

There's a deep, deep essay for piano students, an overview of "59 Piano Solos You Like To Play." This is a collection of old-at-the-time sheet music published by Schirmer in 1936 and found in the piano benches of grandparents (more likely great-grandparents) around the country.

Why, if you're a prospective jazz pianist, should you care about a collection of old pieces by Offenbach and Elgar and Granados (who?)?  "I guarantee James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson, Mary Lou Williams, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and the rest sight-read out of these kind of anthologies. They didn’t need to study 'The Three B’s' in depth, for the 'B-team' was just as good for getting some basic grammar together."  

Convinced, I went down this rabbit hole and found that his review also includes (self-hosted) videos of him performing many of these pieces, as well as brief discussions of each, every one of them having this level of observation:

"F. Chopin, five pieces. Chopin is intertwined with 20th culture in myriad ways. Much of the time he was shorthand for lowbrow 'classical glamour' but his raw musical materials were also crucial.  'I’m Always Chasing Rainbows' and 'Till the End of Time' (associated with Judy Garland and Perry Como) are literal lifts of Chopin melodies. Jobim took the E minor prelude for 'How Insensitive.' Certainly all the jazz pianists played the easiest preludes, nocturnes, waltzes, and polonaises. Great music, invaluable for basic piano perspective. (The G-flat 'Butterfly' etude is a rag, Charlie Haden adored the slow and chromatic E-flat minor etude.)"

It's all like that.  The entire web site, all those essays (over a million words, Iverson estimates), are at this level of detail, with this level of working knowledge of piano music.

It's literally a life's work.

This video's from a lesson Iverson took from Charlie McPherson, one of Charles Mingus's sidemen, in how Charlie Parker played.  It's a great little performance, but you might need to watch it a couple of times before what these two men are doing with each other (or even that one is teaching the other) becomes clear.


  1. I saw Ethan, with whom I am friendly, a while back, in a program with Alex Ross:



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