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McCoy Tyner, "a living symbol of a revolutionary period in jazz"

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Wednesday December 09, 2015

From The Chicago Tribune
By Howard Reich

Maestro, pianist McCoy Tyner gets a rousing homage at Orchestra Hall

If pianist McCoy Tyner hadn’t played a note Friday night in Orchestra Hall, he would have deserved the multiple standing ovations he received.

A vastly influential pianist who long ago proved that the instrument could summon orchestral power, color and sweep, Tyner commands deep respect among jazz listeners. That he also famously collaborated with John Coltrane, most notably on the saxophonist’s landmark album “A Love Supreme” (1965), has made Tyner a living symbol of a revolutionary period in jazz.

But of course Tyner did play the piano on this night, in a concert elegantly conceived to reaffirm his place in jazz history while sparing him the demands of an evening-length performance. Exactly a week before his 77th birthday, on Dec. 11, Tyner looked thin and a bit frail, the master approaching the piano slowly and speaking softly into the microphone.

Yet once he applied fists to keyboard, he brought forth welcome memories of the galvanic sound he once produced. Simply being in a room with a figure of his stature and listening to him pour his ardors into his work amounted to a privilege.

Pianists Geri Allen and Danilo Perez, whose sets in homage to Tyner preceded his, clearly felt the same way. They wasted no time in expressing their thoughts in a concert titled “Echoes with a Friend” (a nimble reference to Tyner’s recorded homage to Coltrane, “Echoes of a Friend”).

“It is the greatest of honors to share the stage with him,” Allen told the audience in opening the evening.

Perez similarly felt compelled to say a few words, standing alongside Tyner on stage later in the night.

“Maestro, I want to tell you that your music has been very powerful in the world,” Perez said.

Tyner proved the point in the evening’s climactic set, performing with his trio. For whatever muscularity he has sacrificed to the passing years, he repaid with the fervor of his delivery and the adventurousness of his harmonic conception.

Sitting ramrod straight at the piano, Tyner opened with a poetic solo on his “Fly with the Wind,” those fat chords, rumbling octaves and streaks of dissonance instantly recognized as signatures of his pianism. When bassist Gerald Cannon and drummer Francisco Mela joined the fray, the rhythmic tension of the music-making increased significantly, the accompanists egging Tyner on. He responded by conjuring swirls of color in the middle register of the keyboard and surging rhythmic thrust from top to bottom.

Then Tyner went still farther out on a limb.

“I’m going to think of something I want to play myself, solo,” he told the audience before easing into a free-form ballad. This ruminative, untitled improvisation was as gently stated as Tyner’s spoken introduction, its nocturnal tone and long-lined lyricism attesting to lesser known, introspective facets of his art.

When Tyner closed his mini-set with “Blues on the Corner,” from his album “The Real McCoy,” he achieved his most dynamic playing of the evening, even if its opening passages proved a bit messy. The pianist quickly regained his footing, however, generating excitement with crisply delivered repeated notes and achieving a blues-swing sensibility with his trio.

Anyone who doubted the man’s imprint on today’s jazz pianism need only have listened to the portions of the evening led by Allen and Perez.

Allen began her set with “Four by Five,” also from “The Real McCoy” album, her wash of sound, layering of voices and cascading figurations explicitly evoking Tyner’s classic work.

Perez referenced the same album in opening with “Search for Peace,” which he told the audience he was offering in response to the troubled times we now live in. The sheer freedom of this playing proved exhilarating, Perez liberating himself from strict meter to produce a fluid, impressionistic pianism in the company of bassist Cannon and drummer Mela.

Perez again dipped into “The Real McCoy” album in “Passion Dance,” the cohesion of his playing with Cannon and Mela recalling the immensity and rhythmic momentum of some of Tyner’s best work. And Perez’s concluding solo represented a tip of the hat both to Chicago and to Tyner’s wide-ranging musical sensibilities, Perez improvising on portions of his “Suite for the Americas,” which Perez premiered at the Chicago Jazz Festival in 1999.

The evening’s last word, appropriately, belonged to Tyner.

“Jazz is the American art form,” he told an audience that was on its feet. “When I travel to Paris, South America, I never forget where it came from.”

Few have done more to advance it than Tyner.

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