McCoy Tyner Tribute at SFJAZZ

Harry S. Pariser By

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McCoy Tyner Tribute
Symphony Hall
San Francisco, CA
June 19, 2016

At 8:05 PM on a Sunday evening, the lights dimmed and a master of the jazz piano took the stage at Symphony Hall in San Francisco, California.

A standing ovation greeted the 77-year-old who, after seating himself at the 88s, launched into a ten-minute solo which conjured up pyramids of sound, brought up wave after wave of percussive sound, raising sonic scaffolds, pyramids and minarets before ending with a final stylized flourish.

The performer was jazz patriarch McCoy Tyner. Tyner initially made his name as a pianist in the John Coltrane Quartet before moving on to compose as well as to front his own ensembles. Through the decades, as the evening was to attest, Tyner has influenced several generations of musicians and enhanced the lives of those who have seen him perform, heard him live or both.

Tyner has developed his own instantly recognizable, highly influential and distinct piano style, and he has also stood out as one of the first American artists who dipped his toe into the African continent's cornucopia of musical instruments and styles. Tyner's album Sahara (Impulse, 1972), perhaps the best example of this, remains a classic.

After the applause subsided, saxophone great Joe Lovano—decked out all in navy blue, and portly and goateed—came out to even more applause. The tribute portion of the event—a tribute to McCoy Tyner put on by SFJAZZ—then began in earnest as the saxophonist and pianist collaborated on a rendition of Tyner's classic "Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit."

Lovano departed, and Gospel-influenced Marcus Roberts was next. Blind since the age of five, Roberts has worked with the late Elvin Jones as well as with Wynton Marsalis. After speaking his words of appreciation for Tyner, Roberts announced that he "would try to play something in his honor" and launched into a lyrical version of "Inception."

Former Art Blakey sideman Benny Green, who has been likened to Bud Powell, then joined him at the opposite-facing second piano; both began an inspired dialog during a rendition of "Contemplation," and then, at the tune's completion, Roberts bowed and left the stage.

Green then expressed his appreciation for Tyner, relating how he had first seen him on TV, and then played a lovely rendition of "Fly With the Wind." Ending with a flourish, he left the stage.

Taylor Eigsti, a Menlo Park, California native who currently resides in New York City, was up next. A one-time child prodigy who has taught at Stanford Jazz Workshop since the age of 15, Eigsti has issued seven CDs as a leader and has been nominated for two Grammys. Taking the stage in a plaid shirt, he played "Effendi."

Next up was Geri Allen. Allen, who had also played in a concert with Tyner at SFJAZZ the previous year, told us that her family (father, brother and daughter) was present and wished us a "Happy Father's Day." Dressed in black with an orange scarf, Allen is one of the most prominent female jazz pianists. Born in Detroit, she has played with many jazz greats, released her first album as a leader in 1984, and her latest CD is Grand River Crossings: Motown & Motor City Inspirations (Motéma, 2012). She currently teaches at the University of Pittsburgh, her alma mater. She performed an exquisite version of the Tyner classic "You Taught My Heart to Sing," which was followed by a vibrant and flowing "4 x 5."

As Allen exited, the thickset, shaven head Kenny Barron entered. At 71, Barron remains a formidable pianist. Co-founder of the legendary Thelonious Monk tribute band Sphere, his latest CD is Book of Intuition (Impulse, 2016). Barron was joined by Lovano for a lovely duet on "Passion Dance."

Then it was Barron's turn to shine solo on a nine-minute virtuosic, often delicate rendition of "Blues Back." He ended with a swirl and departed to more applause.

Then, Chick Corea, clad in jeans, Nike sneakers and a pale blue scarf, entered stage right resulting in yet more rapturous applause and another standing ovation. The well known and well loved pianist told of his first experience hearing Tyner at the 56-seat Lennie's-on-the-Turnpike (a legendary jazz club run by the late Lennie Sogoloff which burnt to the ground in May of 1971). "I never went up to say 'hi;" I was too shy." Tyner was "a hero to all of us," and "in 1959 the John Coltrane Quartet changed the the face of music.... That was church and university to me."

He went on to relate that "I copied McCoy's solos and tried to play like McCoy." Corea then introduced "Children's Song #12," a tune he informed us was influenced by Tyner's style. In his characteristic coaching style, Corea invited the audience to hum along; after a few minutes he stood up and, placing his hands in the piano, plucked the strings.

The lights came up and Tyner and Lovano re-entered to yet another standing ovation. Corea shook hands with Tyner before the trio launched into a rousing "Blues on the Corner." At the end, Corea shook hands with the others, and the soft-spoken Tyner said a few words.

All the pianists returned for "In A Mellow Tone." Barron seated himself to the left of Tyner, and Roberts sat on the other side as Corea looked on. Corea sat down, played and then ceded his seat to Eigsti. Corea then went over to watch Barron, placing a hand on his shoulder, and Allen took Barron's place next to Tyner. Corea replaced Eigsti. Corea then motioned with his hands and got the audience enthused and clapping hands. It all climaxed in a final standing ovation.

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