McCoy Tyner: Shadows and Pulse at the Blue Note

Dr. Judith Schlesinger By

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But whatever the physiology or theory behind it, hearing Tyner this way gave me a new appreciation of the power of his music.
Driving down to see McCoy Tyner at the Blue Note, listening to his Grammy-nominated Illuminations along the way, I wondered what new thing I could possibly say about this jazz icon. Of course the CD is terrific, as already documented on AAJ, and I knew his performance would be masterful. I figured I could always discuss the difference in the band — it would be Billy Cobham and Stanley Clarke that night, rather than the CD's constellation of Gary Bartz, Terence Blanchard, Christian McBride, and Lewis Nash. So that was a possibility.

What happened instead was totally unpredictable, and helped me appreciate Tyner in a completely different way.

I got to the Blue Note, dodging the usual kamikaze cabs along the way, and my friend George was already there. He'd picked a seat that was just behind Tyner and to his left, so that George could see the keyboard (he's a pianist too). I could've sat next to him, but given that the club was so packed, getting to the opposite seat was tricky enough (excuse me, excuse me, excuse me). That left me directly behind the piano bench and almost on the stage. I would not be seeing Cobham or Clarke, and only the back of Tyner — and maybe his left hand, if he raised it high enough over the keyboard.

But I didn't object, and not just because the place was packed and the options were rapidly decreasing. I thought it might be interesting to hear a live performance without the usual distractions of watching the musicians' technique, seeing their faces, and enjoying their interplay with each other. Also, having my back to the room meant that I didn't have to notice the crowd, especially the irritants who talk through solos. This way, I could totally focus on the music.

Well, I was both right and wrong — right, in that the musical experience was more direct and intense, and wrong, because there was a visual that kept me fascinated. Moreover, another sensory dimension was operating — a physical touching that I couldn't have anticipated.

Here's how it worked. I was behind Tyner, and the lighting cast his shadow on the wall. I could watch his head and upper body and his hands, especially when he started high for his keyboard attack (which he often does). Tyner has a ponytail and a rather noble brow, and with his signature preference for fourths, the Indian analogy was inescapable. In any case, from my perspective, the source of the music was a shadow dancing on the wall.

The touching happened because my right knee was squished against the stage. Tyner keeps time with his left foot, so each time it hit the floor, I felt the impact against my leg. So between the shadow and the pulse, I had a whole new way to experience his music.

And what music it was! They began with the marvelous Tyner's "Trane-like" ("for my teacher, John Coltrane"), then went into a rocking version of "Come Rain or Come Shine," during which I scribbled, "tiny explosions all over the keys" in my notebook. Tyner's percussive genius has long been recognized. I'd seen it before, but never felt it quite this literally. On the third selection, Tyner's "Angelina" (which, like "Come Rainï" is on the CD), Clarke started things off with a dazzling imitation of a flamenco guitar, and Cobham played a strong, stalking solo. They took us through many landscapes, and it was clear that the crowd appreciated the fusion-ish funking. It's also a memorable treat in its jazzier CD incarnation.

Another highlight was Tyner's solo rendition of "I Should Care," which is not on the CD. It showcased his more reflective side, and it was beautiful - well, except for the moment when a note got stuck in the middle of the piano, and Tyner stopped playing to let it resonate. Then there was a rollicking blues and something called "Spin It"??, and the whole thing was over too soon.

I remained mesmerized by the shadow and the pulse (I tried to capture the feeling with a picture — I'm sure everyone thought I was nuts, photographing the wall). The combination fed my belief that the very best music has less to do with the players than with something primal and universal that they tap into.

I won't get all Jungian on you, but I've had at least two other experiences where the mystical power of music — its ability to transcend the individual —has been this obvious to me. One was seeing pianist Michel Camilo play at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, in upper Manhattan. He was accompanied only by a flamenco dancer, and the lighting tossed their shadows about 50 feet in the air, filling the vaulted ceiling. This effect depersonalized what they were doing and lifted it into something truly magical.

The other time was at a Brazilian street fair in New York, when I edged my way toward a set of five pounding surdo drums (the deepest sound imaginable). It was summer, I was wearing shorts, and the sound waves from the drums were hitting my bare legs — boom, boom, boom!. It was very sensuous, and also reminded me of music's vibrational essence, which our bodies always react to — just not that directly, most of the time.

But whatever the physiology or theory behind it, hearing Tyner this way gave me a new appreciation of the power of his music. It's strong and steady and absolutely trustworthy. Since I couldn't see any cues or changes of expression, all the shifts in tempo, harmony and mood seemed completely seamless and inevitable. And watching his shadow lean over the piano also seemed like a kind of worship, which fit the best of this holiday season.

So it was a wonderful, serendipitous experience, but, um, George? I'll pick the seats next timeï

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