McCoy Tyner Live at the Jazz Showcase
Live at the Jazz Showcase
by Phyllis A. Lodge
For years I have been attending McCoy Tyner concerts, beginning with his sextet in the 1970’s. As has become his custom, McCoy Tyner waits unobtrusively a few moments in a dimly lit area of the room after being introduced at Joe Segal’s Jazz Showcase. He lingers patiently while bassist Avery Sharpe and drummer Aaron Scott climb onstage and situate themselves with their instruments. He watches silently as though he is part of the audience before proceeding silently to the stage. Every McCoy Tyner performance is different, yet identical. He will come onstage last – he will open the performance with a rousing, thunderous bright sounding number; he will announce most of the tunes in his slightly husky, cordial tone and then he will rock the house.
Thanks to Jazz Showcase impresario, Joe Segal, who began arranging for the pianist’s instrument to be shipped in to the club specifically for McCoy’s performances, the shows are even more electrifying. There is much history wrapped up in McCoy Tyner’s piano. Ah if it could talk. Actually in many ways, it does. The instrument speaks for McCoy the moment he raises his hands like a gentle wizard. Wearing his customary, gracious smile, he situates himself at the keyboard, lowers his hands and immediately envelopes the room in a full-bodied version of My Romance, which is becoming a standard in the pianist’s repertoire. The music just rushes forth. And McCoy enjoys doing it in an upbeat, lively tempo, as Avery Sharpe’s bass and Aaron Scott’s drum set swaddle his rich piano tones in shimmering, buzzing rhythms. After a couple of sprightly rounds in the piece, Avery assumes the lead, plucking mightily at the bass as though they are giant heartstrings. McCoy duets softly behind his bassist of nearly 20 years, producing a few harp-like phrases behind Avery’s rolling circles of sound. They then bring the piece to a close.
McCoy picks up the mike and welcomes his listeners as he encourages a warm round of applause for Avery Sharpe and Aaron Scott before they move into Trane-Like, a fairly recent Coltrane-inspired composition. McCoy embarks on a rich, vivid and deeply textured line of harmonics filled with his trademark cluster of sound. Avery’s bass and Aaron’s percussion swath McCoy in their own masterful rhythms. It is highly reminiscent of the seeking, climatic style Coltrane became famous for in his hey-day during the mid-1960’s. McCoy’s moving solo holds fast the audience’s attention throughout the entire introductory passages of the piece. He falls back quietly allowing Aaron’s hypnotic drum patterns to emerge , swelling gracefully into a multi-directional, tone-driven statement. As Aaron’s highly crafted solo progresses, Elvin Jones crossed my mind only briefly. Aaron’s style is his own, but there was something in the spirit of his playing, or maybe just the spirit of the number, that called up this impression as he played.
Again Avery Sharpe comes forth in solo. Even after years of listening to Avery’s slap-string, rolling approach to the instrument, I am continually astounded at the grace with which he advances exciting, spiced and highly articulate solos. And he does so like one totally detached from the outcome, while remaining completely in harmony with his instrument. Then the trio brings Trane Like to a graceful close. McCoy again thanks the audience before he announces My Foolish Heart. In this ballad McCoy exhibits his flare for transitions. He can change keys consistently throughout the number while maintaining integrity of the tune. He may play a few bars in stride tempo, singing slightly audibly under the keyboard and gently pounding his left foot on the floor, which is all part of the music. McCoy continues also to recreate this healing sense of perpetual waves and graceful arches of golden sunshine. He also employs his famous echoing octaves that recreate an ascension of mountainous peaks, while sounding like gongs throughout vast canyons. Then he lands the number lightly in graceful close like a seasoned pilot. Throughout the performance, the audience is taking turns clapping at various high points in his solo. Sometimes we clap in between transitions within the number. I have often seen audiences become collectively overwhelmed with the magnificence of McCoy’s playing style, and tonight is no exception.
Another McCoy Tyner original, Happy Days, always draws early applause and approval from the listeners. After a couple of bars of one of his extended introduction which usually has the audience in suspended, silent focus, he gets into the heart of the tune and the audience almost cheers. Happy Days moves the listener down a lazy river of sound as it incites the people to rock in unison. It enchants with the feel of gospel — joyous, spiritual, down-home and satisfying. McCoy’s effect on the audience with this number is always mellowing, and within the context of the trio it leaves an indelible impression of good-old, down-home peace. McCoy performs another solo ballad this evening is entitled Memories, which is much newer for me. Anytime McCoy performs solo, the other musicians alight from the stage allowing the pianist to bathe the audience in polished, reverent beauty.
The audience is treated to another Coltrane classic, Mr. PC, written for the great bassist, Paul Chambers. McCoy dives headlong into a cut-time version, showcasing his uncanny practice of what I have christened his piano dialog. The two hands are both chattering back and forth at the same time. The effect this time feels like a group of ladies all chattering breathlessly after a wonderful sermon. After a while, the music begins to take on its own life. The solos become more and more compelling as they work to surpass what they had done before. McCoy even stops announcing the numbers. They are simply caught up now in the music. The audience is all responding at their own discretion, praising a phrase the ‘speaks to them’. The set becomes a conversation between everyone in the room. Even the hostess who is serving the drinks occasionally stops a moment to focus on the performance onstage.
During the course of the evening, McCoy performs Fly with the Wind, one of the few numbers that is not somehow directly connected to his Coltrane-inspired tribute. Since, however Fly with the Wind is an admitted favorite composition of McCoy’s, it is still a tribute. It is a number that you can often look forward to hearing after an interval of time, regardless of what phase of the music McCoy is feeling right then. It is one of those numbers that he just enjoys performing, and he pulls it out at unpredictable times just to hear it again.
Actually, the order of the show has been a bit compromised here. The group actually finished with Mr. PC and moved into a good old-fashioned blues number that was a cross of “St. Louis Woman” and McCoy’s composition, Blues for Basie. It didn’t really have to be either, now that I think back, since the nature of the blues is an across the board experience. The seasoned musician can play the blues endlessly, moving from one tune to the other without running out of various titles within the form.
The point is that this trio draws a great crowd whenever McCoy Tyner comes to town. The music was so invigorating, I stayed for a second set even though I had to come to work the next day. And funny, I was not tired when I had to rise early the next morning, because sometimes it’s just worth it to experience that kind of energy in your day. And the beauty of it is, McCoy always has positive experiences with Joe Segal and the Showcase in Chicago. And we always look forward to what we know will be a powerful show with some of the greatest music the world has to offer. I understand the group is on its way to California next. I say to the West Coast, get ready. These men are fired up and ready to pack a thrilling punch with their show that will surely rock the house. For more of the same, McCoy Tyner recently released a CD with two more of his favorite colleagues, Al Foster and George Mraz entited McCoy Tyner Plays John Coltrane Live at the Village Vanguard.