McCoy Tyner’s musical changes seem timeless at the Schermerhorn

mccoyPianist and bandleader McCoy Tyner’s been a superb player and influential member of the jazz world since his early days with the Benny Golson/Art Farmer Jazztet in the late ’50s.

His relationship with saxophonist John Coltrane during the immortal quartet’s five years (1960-65) further shaped modern jazz’s course and direction. His style merged brilliant left-hand forays with inventive right-hand harmonizing, and the creative use of blues scales and imaginative chord voicings. Tyner’s immaculate solos and accompaniment were as dashing and musically ambitious as Coltrane’s flurries on tenor and soprano saxophone.

But in the 47 plus years he’s led trios, quartets and big bands, Tyner’s become equally noted for intriguing arrangements and memorable compositions, while releasing almost 80 LPs. Now approaching 74, he doesn’t deliver as many volcanic solos, nor spend as much time during concerts in spotlight segments. But he showed Friday night at the Schermerhorn he’s still capable of dazzling moments. His current quartet delivered several good, occasionally outstanding performances.

He opened with a 20-minute rendition of “Fly Like The Wind,” a tune that established the night’s mood and pace. Tyner varied his approach midway from intense to light, then returned to energetic form by the end. He still smartly and slowly builds drama during songs. His left hand determines melodic direction, while the right establishes harmonic counterpoint, both of them doing it so quickly at times it’s almost a blur. Marvelous bass licks and spinning lead lines also remain major aspects of his attack.

The one concession to age comes in consistent speed and volume.  Tyner doesn’t zip through the keyboard as often or as forcfully as he once did, and he also doesn’t (or at least Friday night didn’t) cover any tunes from such landmark LPs as “Sahara” (1972 Downbeat LP of the year). Nor did he do “Naima,” a signature Coltrane tune that for many years was always part of the set list.

But he did include a number from his classic 1967 Blue Note album “The Real McCoy.” “Blues On the Corner” featured tenor/soprano saxophonist Gary Bartz in a joyous, playful mode.  Bartz had his strongest solos on “Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit,” the song that opened the second set, and two renditions of Duke Ellington’s “In a Mellow Tone,” the number that wrapped both sets.

Bartz was a solid, if not spectacular player, and he certainly enjoyed playing Tyner’s and Ellington’s pieces. His solos did have spark and authority, as did those of bassist Gerald Cannon.

Drummer Francisco Mela got lots of individual time, and his solos ranged from competent to explosive. Mela and Cannon made a good rhythm section pair for Tyner, whose backing licks underneath Bartz’s solos were steady and crisp. Tyner gave his band mates plenty of individual space and time, opting for only one unaccompanied segment during the second set.

Yet that was the night’s highlight. Tyner nicely segued from bits of Broadway tunes into his own material, adding parts of the melody from “A Time For Us” to pieces of “Peresina” and “Contemplation.” He started with soft, rippling voicings, then shifted to an aggressive posture. Then he changed field again, playing in a moderate fashion. Tyner also gave the audience a few moments of virtuoso technique. He ranged over the keyboard, executing remarkable phrases with ease, before concluding by hitting a right note with a smile. It was a wonderful reminder of what a marvelous player he’s been for decades.

While no one will claim the current McCoy Tyner quartet is the greatest one he’s ever led, it’s a very representative and capable unit. Their Friday night show both summarized all the great things Tyner’s done, and showed he’s still able to surprise and delight, just not as long or as often he’s done in the past.

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About Ron Wynn

Ron Wynn is a music critic, author and editor. His features, reviews and articles have run locally in the Nashville Scene, The City Paper (Nashville) and on among others. Wynn is currently sports editor for the Tennessee Tribune and a contributor to Jazz Times. He is former editor of the New Memphis Star and former chief jazz and pop music critic for the Bridgeport Post-Telegram and the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Wynn has contributed to such publications such as Billboard, The Village Voice, Creem, Rock & Roll Disc, Living Blues, The Boston Phoenix, and Rejoice. He was the editor of the first edition of The All Music Guide to Jazz (1994), and from 1993 to 1994 served as the jazz and rap editor of the All Music Guide. Wynn is the author of The Tina Turner Story. He has contributed liner notes for numerous albums; his liner notes for “The Soul of Country Music” received a 1998 Grammy nomination.