Pianist McCoy Tyner turned 75 years old last Wednesday and his body reflected most of those years when he approached the piano on Friday night. Obviously, it is unfair to expect anyone to radiate the heat they were so famous for decades ago. No one has expected Willie McCovey to hit a home run since the Carter administration but they do like to see him step out on a field and wave his hat occasionally. This four night stand was Tyner's opportunity to wave his hat and bask in the glow of the adoration he rightly deserves, overcoming his limited mobility in order to entertain a rapt audience.
Tyner came to prominence alongside John Coltrane in the 1960s, offering a hammer for a left hand and claw for a right. The two helped to redefine jazz with their uninhibited outpourings of fire and soul, taking popular music into unchartered intellectual realms. After leaving Coltrane's band, Tyner continued to define his place as one of the most influential jazz pianists of the 20th century with a series of recordings in the 1960s and 1970s featuring unrelenting physicality from the piano bench.
Over the course of an hour set on Friday, Tyner was joined by saxophonist Joe Lovano, bassist Gerald Cannon and drummer Francisco Mela. Tyner addressed the microphone several times during the set, humbly thanking the crowd and briefly introducing Duke Ellington's “In A Mellowtone” but the band was never identified. Their sadly unrecognized contributions were essential to the band's success and the source for much of the evening's intensity but they didn't seem to mind.
Tyner is still reaching for those pounded left hand notes but his precision is a bit lost. At times, he laid on the sustain pedal for so long that the piano began to hum with the reverberations of a hundred notes. His glissandos and tremolos were occasionally arrhythmic but his attention to the overall performance was undimmed. He ended most of the tunes with an invisible whip crack and a shout and his stellar ensemble stopped on a dime.
Aside from a straight ahead take on the aforementioned “In A Mellowtone,” Tyner and company took a rousing stroll through some Tyner-penned standards. “Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit” was driven by Cannon's consistent thump while Mela battered his kit with youthful enthusiasm. Lovano honked wildly as the rest of the band traded smiles. Seeing Lovano as a sideman was an interesting treat, as he stayed out of the way for most of the evening and happily avoided the spotlight.
"Blues On the Corner,” from Tyner's seminal 1967 Blue Note Recording The Real McCoy, was the quartet's closer. There was a playfulness and spontaneity to the arrangement that had the sidemen looking around at times for where things were going next. Mela's solo breaks fell in different spots in different choruses forcing the band to stay on their toes while Tyner's solo offering was drenched with a soulful grit.
Less than an hour after starting, the band left the stage. Tyner thanked the audience and then laid the microphone in the center of the piano. The cord draped between his hands as he began a sweet rendition of "I Should Care.” He tried once to remove the cord but gave up. Eventually, Mela attempted to complete the trick but Tyner was already deep into the tune and was resigned to working around the hurdle he had set for himself. It was a delicate performance, short and contemplative.
It was at times hard to see someone who is defined by their strength displaying such frailty but his determination to continue performing is a reassurance that his passions remain undimmed.
After his solo performance, he promised to come back to Orange County. I look forward to that return.
Personal Bias: The Samueli Theater is quite fond of a static psychedelic projection that gets splayed out behind the bands. It remained off for Tyner's set and an unintended consequence was a beautiful reflection of the piano's white keys jutting at a forty-five degree angle above the piano. The resulting bird's eye view reflection was far more interesting than any tie-dye wallpaper.
The Crowd: With the floor seat ticket price averaging out to about $1.50 a minute, the crowd was of the age and financial background that can afford those rates.
Random Notebook Dump: Two berets and three goatees on the stage. A hepcat's fantasy.