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McCoy Tyner Plays Coltrane and Hartman

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Thursday October 13, 2011

from Mercury News

McCoy Tyner Plays Coltrane and Hartman
By Andrew Gilbert

John Coltrane is best remembered as jazz’s quintessential spiritual seeker, an indomitable improviser whose epic quest drew him steadily into uncharted musical realms.

But among the many enduring albums he recorded for Impulse! in the 1960s with his classic quartet, one particular collaboration stands out as an island of yearning romanticism amid Coltrane’s stoic laments, ecstatic prayers, beatific benedictions and cross-cultural investigations. Recorded in 1963, “John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman” ranks among jazz’s greatest albums by a male singer, a session that ensured that the velvet smooth bass crooner wouldn’t be forgotten.

Nearly half a century later, pianist McCoy Tyner, the musician around whom Coltrane built his epochal quartet, is touring with a project inspired by the Hartman album, featuring the prodigious saxophonist Chris Potter and rising vocal star José James in the title roles. As Tyner recalls the original session, he hadn’t heard Hartman sing much, though Coltrane had played with him back in the late 1940s when they were both members of Dizzy Gillespie’s big band.

“John was more familiar with him, but I really enjoyed that particular session,” says Tyner, 72, who brings the Coltrane-Hartman project to Kuumbwa for two shows Saturday and to Herbst Theatre on Sunday as part of the San Francisco Jazz Festival. “The thing about John Coltrane was that he was very lyrical. He played like a vocalist.”

Coltrane could sing through his horn with unsurpassed lyricism, but Tyner has never pursued a project of his own with a singer. Coming up as a teenager, he worked with various vocalists around Philadelphia, but once he hit the road with Trane, his days as freelance accompanist were over (well, if you don’t count his stint with Ike and Tina Turner in the early 1970s). Noting that singers have always inspired him, Tyner says that he keeps three photos over his desk: Coltrane, Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday.

“The human voice is a wonderful instrument when you get someone who’s got some experience, who understands how they want to phrase and what the vocal chords are about,” Tyner says. “I look at José like a horn, that’s how I accompany. I lay things down on the piano, and I listen. You’ve got to open your ears. You have to really color it and make it interesting.”

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