Home Is Where You Put Your Fingers: McCoy Tyner, All These Years Later

Jazz legend McCoy Tyner at Jazz Alley Thursday night. (photo by Joe Mabel)

At 73, McCoy Tyner is the last living musician from John Coltrane‘s classic quartet, which also featured Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones.  After deciding in 1965 that he could no longer follow Coltrane’s lead, he’s lead an ever-shifting group through post-bop lyricism, with an increasing interest in Cuban rhythms.

I’d heard from a friend how Tyner had been seriously ill lately, but the man in the flat cap who sat down Thursday night at Jazz Alley to open a four-night run, seemed under the weather only through his raspy voice ID’ing songs and/or praising the musicians between numbers.  His left hand lead his right hand most of the time, through insistent ostinatos and block chords close to mid-keyboard.  Either side could fly up high or down low, though, and he repeatedly built grand assemblages from simpler figures, filling in the sound from his sustain pedal, before lifting his foot to dispel and resend.

Gary Bartz‘s white hair and matching jacket lent him a professorial air, and indeed he teaches at the Oberlin College of Music when not out on the road.  His deceptively-simple, supple lines interlaced with the three rhythm players, with occasional piano-sax dialogues.  Upright bassist Gerald Cannon, physically imposing as his instrument, struggled against less-than-optimal sound levels during his solos but stayed on the pulse and in the pocket.  The band’s youngest member, Cuban drummer Francisco Mela, pushed the beat during the head melodies, laid cymbals on thick for solos; his irrepressible energy drove the wheel for the ensemble’s organic locomotive.

Tyner asked the audience not to “flash bright lights” in his face, a reference, presumably, to someone’s ill-advised flash photography.  “I’m trying to maintain a mood up here.”  The flashes remained unflashed, then, for most of the rest of the set as the master, deeper and wiser than most from so many journeys, settled into the deep ripples of that mood.