Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Progressing with McCoy Tyner

The power surge music provides was on display last Friday in the Segerstrom Center for the Arts' Samueli Theater.

Pianist McCoy Tyner, in for four weekend concerts with his trio (bassist Gerald Cannon and drummer Francisco Mela) and guest saxophonist Joe Lovano, carefully followed his band mates up the bandstand steps. In classic fashion he faced the audience, left hand on piano, and gingerly acknowledged their welcome with several shallow bows.

He then lowered his thin frame, 75 years old on Wednesday, with an aide making sure the piano bench did not move.

When Tyner launched into the first of the six-song, 75-minute set, the tentative movements were gone. The fiery, firm-fingered intensity that brought him to national attention half a century ago flamed anew. In 1960, Tyner joined saxophonist John Coltrane in one of the most important quartets in jazz history. He was on hand for several of those landmark albums including A Love Supreme. The march of time may have left its mark on Tyner the man, but Tyner the musician played with the same energy he had back in his 20s in Philadelphia.

While the opening number suffered some mixing issues, they resolved for the second song: Duke Ellington's "In a Mellow Tone," a title that Lovano's rich tenor timbre captures as well as any past or present player. Lovano has made his own mark, one the New York Times' Thomas Staudter validated when he quoted Times music critic Ben Ratliff in a 2001 story, "It's fair to say that he's one of the greatest musicians in jazz history."

The soloing grew stronger as the sound operator found the right balance and by the third number, Tyner's "Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit," the group was flying high. Here, Lovano's exceptionalism was clear as he dug deep through the familiar progression for a soaring, visceral solo.

The fourth tune was more reflective, and the band members shared the spotlight in turns, with bassist Cannon and drummer Mela consistently providing inventive and engaging moments in their solos.

The fifth song was "Blues on the Corner," and then Tyner satisfied the standing ovation demand for an encore with a quiet solo piece.

Cannon and Mela have been accompanying Tyner regularly, joined by saxophonist Lovano, Gary Bartz, or Ravi Coltrane. Their time together showed off. Lovano, who has frequently played with Tyner since 1999 [read our interview with Joe] worked extensively with Mela in his ensemble quintet Us Five.

After a solo encore by the pianist on "I Should Care," the aide returned to help. Once Tyner introduced him as his son, he took advantage of the moment to tell the audience of his father's recently birthday, at which the standing crowd gleefully broke into "Happy Birthday, McCoy."

With childlike playfulness, Tyner acknowledged the song with a big-eyed lie, "I'm just 21." But, in retrospect, that's really a half truth. While chronologically he just turned 75, musically he's timeless.

Photo: McCoy Tyner, Gerald Cannon, Joe Lovano, and Francisco Mela in a previous outing, photographed by Sébastien Grébille