Jazz pianist McCoy Tyner is in Minneapolis for two nights at downtown’s Dakota Jazz Club. At seventy-seven, Tyner is one of the most influential jazz pianists of his time, most widely known for his work with the classic early sixties John Coltrane Quartet, of which he is the last surviving member.
Tyner’s imitable style on those recordings has been emulated by pianists for decades, but he remains one of those performers who is instantly recognizable to fans. No one else sounds quite like McCoy Tyner. His percussive use of the low end with his left hand, and his rapid, searching solos with his right translated Coltrane’s spiritually-charged saxophone to the keyboard. His heavy use of chords produce a deceptively streamlined structure to his solos, under lies enormous depth.
While Tyner is most associated with the sound of the Coltrane Quartet, he can also “swing lightly,” as Duke Ellington would often say in regard to a specific approach to rhythm and melody. In fact, on his last album for Coltrane’s label, Impulse Records, Tyner borrows the Quartet’s rhythm section for a program of Ellington songs which swings lightly with elegance and sophistication.
McCoy Tyner Plays Ellington explores widely-heard standards from the Ellington catalog as well as a few deep cuts. His “Solitude” is especially effervescent, more akin to Ellington’s 40s arrangement with vocalist Ivie Anderson than the introspective, almost lonely way it was performed solo and with the orchestra in later years. Tyner turns it into a cheerful tune.
In a side-and-a-half long track on Enlightenment nearly ten years later Tyner balanced this light swing with the almost overpowering polyphonics of the Coltrane Quartet. “Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit” is opened by drum and bass solos (Alphonse Mouzon and Juni Booth) before Tyner and saxophonist Azar Lawrence introduce a relentlessly driving melody.
This twenty-four minute epic performance from the 1973 Montreux Jazz Festival is one of the standards by which the seventies’ so-called “spiritual jazz” should be judged.
Performing with Tyner tonight and tomorrow here in Minneapolis is Gary Bartz, whose own albums of that era (several for Milestone Records, the same label which released Enlightenment) epitomize the potential of that golden era of exploration in jazz history. Yesterday’s Star Tribune lamented that Tyner had slowed down since the sixties, which is fair enough if also to be expected, but failed to mention Bartz (simply describing Tyner’s band as “not too shabby”). He has made appearances on Tyner’s albums since the sixties, as well as establishing his own enthralling amalgam of funk and free jazz with Ntu Troop on albums which are favorites in our collection.
Tyner’s bassist is Gerald Cannon, originally from Wisconsin and at one time the bassist for Elvin Jones’ band (performing at the old Dakota during the 90s). Drummer Francisco Mela is the youngest member of the quartet, but as a Cuban has a more diverse musical background. He also performs with Joe Lovano’s band and has recorded four acclaimed albums as a leader himself.