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Back Roads Beat

2007 North Sea Jazz Cruise Day 8: School Daze With McCoy Tyner, Amateurs And A 'Ship Pianist'

By Published: July 26, 2007
I spent a day with a guilty nagging that my impressions couldn't possibly be true, but talking to a few others — some of whom noted Tyner's been in poor health the past year or so, sometimes playing sparingly at gigs — convinced me I wasn't completely misguided.

"I can tell he's still fragile," said Bobby Sparks, the keyboardist in Miller's current band.

That said, the evening with his quartet had its moments.

The foursome only brought the opening song (missed the title) to a mid-tempo simmer, with Tyner chording leisurely phrases without much space. At that point I was hoping it might be the opening salvo of a set that built and deconstructed intensity throughout the entire performance, not just by the song, certainly an interesting contrast to the hit-em-over-the-head introductions most bands rely on.

"Ballad For Asia" didn't discourage the thought, as Tyner's playing was notably more lush and dramatic, this time throwing in more non-sequential note flurries as he sort of coasted over bassist Gerald Cannon and drummer Eric Kamau Gravatt like a surfer on a rolling wave rather than an X-treme one. Gravatt, who's played with far too many legends to excuse my previous total ignorance of him, grabbed attention and respect quickly when they picked up the tempo on the next song with a solo highlighting various sections of his setup (notes: "I'm never really sure what's polyrhythmic but, wow, he's definitely got enough simultaneous language going to qualify").

But within that song were seeds of letdown, as saxophonist Gary Bartz, touring with Tyner's trio, played one of those well-defefined solos that spurred feelings I must be missing the deeper message and Tyner was relying on one- or two-chord repeats to build tensions between a solo whose character I noted as "strolling." A slow sense of descent followed, with my attention wavering more and more, and my notes growing fewer, as I simply wasn't coming out of songs with much of anything leaving an impression.

The crowd gave Tyner a strong hand for a couple of his latter solos, so it's fair to say he was reaching plenty of listeners. It was nothing like the painful experience of watching Oscar Peterson being able to play with only one hand — and the almost desperate insistence of fans who say he sounds legendary regardless—but there was a faint reminder of it and a terrible foreboding of such things possibly laying ahead in the future. Mortality is not fun to contemplate during a concert.

Watching a bunch of folks with no credentials at all drove those thoughts away.

A long hoped-for jam session finally took place in the Crow's Nest around 11 p.m., with Miller leading the get-together as a prelude to his band's midnight show. He's been a first-rate cruise host and the session was no exception, as he guided and encouraged players with a combination of skill and enthusiasm I haven't seen at a jam before.

"We got a drum player?" he said, welcoming players who were still arriving and tuning their instruments. "C'mon—we can't do anything without a drum player."

"You need sticks, too," he reminded a volunteer heading toward the kit.

"We got a bassist? This is a jam, so I want to give a bassist an opportunity."

None were immediately available so, surely to nobody's disappointment, Miller sat in during the first couple of songs, playing almost entirely vamps in the background. Mostly, though, he focused on conducting the musical concepts and impromptu arrangements.

"This is a jam session, so you've got to be aggressive and do your thing," he told the first group of players as they took their places. "You've got to step up — don't ask."

"Let's start with a blues, just a basic pattern," he continued. He got the drummer and bass into a groove, then got others to step in with a crude head for a couple of passes before getting to the real purpose.

A young alto saxophonist stepped up first after a fleeting hesitation, playing a musically correct solo that still held some lingering shyness. Zachary Silveria, 45, a tenor saxophonist I met and wrote about on Day 2, stepped up next and shook out a nice harvest of level-handed short notes, throwing in a few higher-register dashes to break the pattern. One of the smart players, he stayed safely within his abilities — I'd heard him stretch further while practicing in his cabin, but those also came with the occasional glaring error. A trombonist, then Miller doing a short and medium-dense slap solo, a silver alto sax with a meshed Parker/Crawford tone and aggressive bebop vocabulary, and an organ vamp too low in volume and sparse on chords followed.

"Do you want to do a shuffle or a da-da-da?" Miller asked next. Whichever the drummer and bassist chose, they choked on the opening. "OK, that's not going to work. Let's do a funk instead."

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