Mark Turner and Ethan Iverson Bring Chamber Jazz to Spoleto Festival USA

Spoleto Festival USA host Quentin Baxter, tenor saxophonist Mark Turner and pianist Ethan Iverson pose for a photo after Mr. Turner’s  and Mr. Iverson’s June 8, 2019 performance for this year’s Festival

By Hakim Abdul-Ali

For six performances during this year’s Spoleto Festival USA Wells Fargo Jazz Series, beginning on June 5 and ending on June 8, 2019, the distinct duo of tenor saxophonist Mark Turner and pianist Ethan Iverson introduced the Festival goers to a more creatively different version of jazz. Most would refer to it as chamber jazz because of where it was performed.

I saw the fifth unveiling of their unique musical compositional forays on June 8 at 5pm, which was the next to the last of all of their one hour shows for the Festival. They performed one other show later that evening, which was the very last of their scheduled performances, after the performance that I saw.

To describe what kind of music that Mark Turner and Ethan Iverson play is really easily to put into words if you’re a pure old school jazz buff. These individuals are experienced experimental souls, and they are widely loved musicians who are masters of their instruments.

They performed seven distant numbers for the show I attended, starting off with their meaningful rendition of Thelonious Monk’s infamous “Mysterioso.” Then they drifted into really deep stuff with the demonstrative tune “Turner’s Chamber of Unlikely Delights,” a conveying vibe that displayed Mark Turner’s unquestioned prowess on his tenor saxophone.

Next were the revealing “Radiant Royal” and the telling “Just Friends,” tunes where Iverson and Turner supported each other with collaborative playful modal and melodic exchanges. At times, listening  to these guys reminded me of some of the suggestive musicians I knew from my old NYC and Newark, New Jersey jazz scenes, individuals who always experimented with each other to see if they could get the musically best out of themselves.

These two admired musicians, who played for Spoleto jazz fans, concluded their set with the eloquent “Graduation Day” and the emotive “Showdown,” both challenging tunes for these serious musicians to explore and expand on what they wanted and expected from each other for the audience’s enjoyment. They then ended the their performance with a august encore tune, “Dixie’s Dilemma,” which delighted the audience.

I must tell that the way that Ethan Iverson plays piano is nothing short of a skilled and dedicated craftsman exploring new heights of musical piano virtuosity. Of course, the very same description applies to the incomparable tenor saxophonist and composer, Mark Turner, who has a solidly smooth and warmly inviting tone to his cerebral playing aura.

Mr. Iverson has played with likes of Billy Hart, Joshua Redman, Lee Konitz, Kurt Rosenwinkel and even the great bassist Ron Carter, just to let you know that this respected pianist and composer is on the very top of his piano playing game. He’s also an instructor at the New England Conservatory and has established “Do the Math” as one of the foremost blogs in jazz over the past decade.

Mr. Turner, 53, is a much respected horn player in the field of jazz. His advance bio for Spoleto audiences stated that he’s renowned for his exploratory intellect and intimate expressivity on the full range of his instrument. He’s released six albums as a solo leader, and he and Mr. Iverson released a formidable ECM recording entitled “Temporary Kings” in 2018.

I had the opportunity to chat with these two musical talents after the performance I saw, and they are real decent guys to be around. They are serious about their music and respecting other fellow musical giants who they greatly admire.

Mr. Iverson, 46, in particular, heaped respectful musical praise on the true and legendary American Classical Music superstar, Ahmad Jamal, who he said was “the” pianist’s pianist. It humbled me to hear a young titan of jazz like Ethan Iverson recognize Mr. Jamal because he’s an illustrious musical icon, who, without a doubt, has few peers alive who can compare to his esteemed piano brilliance, composing expertise and worldwide celebrity over the last six decades.

I’d have to say that Mark Turner and Ethan Iverson provided this year’s sophisticated Spoleto lovers of classically tinged chamber type avant-garde jazz, with new and old experimental musical compositions during their Festival performances. And, the Simons Center on the College of Charleston’s campus, where they performed all of their shows, was the perfect venue for this dynamic twosome to do what they presented.

I enjoyed them because they are well trained, educated and seasoned professional musicians, who weren’t afraid to explore the boundaries of demonstrating their creatively new sounds and bold compositions for Spoleto Festival USA’s 2019 audiences. Those who heard them, I’m sure, felt the same as I did. They were very good.

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