On the last Saturday night in January, during the first week of McCoy Tyner's annual two week residency at Yoshi's, I made the trip from Tucson to hear a Tyner Trio featuring Stanley Clarke and Billy Cobham. That sort of lineup, all too infrequent, was cause of celebration, and worth the thousand mile journey.
I've heard McCoy Tyner live a dozen or so times in the last thirty-five years, all good, but three standout:
September 12, 1971: A John Coltrane Memorial Concert that included the groups of Elvin Jones, Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane, and McCoy with Sonny Fortune, Calvin Hill and Alphonse Mouzon. That concert provided a fitting end to the 60s, each group playing music of such intensity that long after the music ended, hours later in fact, people were hanging outside Town Hall on 43rd Street, dazed and revitalized.
Note: Bassist Gene Perla, who played with Elvin that night, has released a recording
of Elvin's set that night.
A 1978 concert at the Beacon Theatre with a Milestone Jazz Stars that included McCoy, Sonny Rollins, Ron Carter and Al Foster. That was nothing short of incredibleMcCoy and Sonny togetheran authentic meeting of the Greek Gods. I know Sonny doesn't like to do the "all-star"? thang, but those cats playing together live, man, that's something everyone on this planet should experience, just once.
April 3, 1991. I was in the studio when McCoy and Joe Henderson were recording New York Reunion (I did the liner notes). One memory from that session... about half way through the date, McCoy and Joe were trying to decide what to play next. McCoy picked up the Real Book (a "fake book"? containing a couple hundred "Jazz standards"?) and started riffling through it, with Joe standing by. "How about this?"? McCoy said to Joe. Henderson leaned over and saw McCoy's choice, "hey, that's one of my tunes."?
I've also heard McCoy with different quartets that included Sonny Fortune, Azar Lawrence, Gary Bartz and Michael Brecker, as well as with his Trio. But it had been about ten years since our last encounter so this Yoshi's gig was my first chance to hear McCoy live in a long time. Mr. Tyner is now sixty-six years old, hardly ready for retirement, but still, I wondered, has he lost anything off his fastball? No!
Tyner, Clarke and Cobham took the stage to thunderous applause. This was my maiden voyage at Yoshi's
and the club is the perfect space to hear music, with comfortable tiered seating and fine site lines throughout the wood paneled room. The acoustics were first rate, with the volume just loud enough and the instruments perfectly balanced. A thunderous burst from McCoy's left hand, some rapid runs from his right and they were off. Their one hour set, a mixture of Tyner originals and few standards, passed all too quickly but the memory lingers.
Although this was McCoy's gig, he was playing with peers instead of sideman. What a difference that makes. Although they've only worked a month of gigs together, the Trio totally locked up, each man listening and reacting as if they'd been collaborators for years. There's a symbiotic, organic communication that musicians achieve when they work together consistently and these cats had it from note one.
Clarke displayed electrifying instrumental virtuosity, both in the role of bassist within the trio, and as a soloist, when he played the upright like a flamenco guitar. The mark of any great Jazz player is that recognition comes with a couple of notes and Clarke certainly falls in that category. Ever since he "arrived"? with Return to Forever in the 70s, Clarke's playing has distinctive, although he's never let his mastery of the bass overshadow the perfect symmetry of a finely tuned rhythm section.
Cobham, a favorite since the original Mahavishu Orchestra, is criminally under-rated. Amazingly dexterous, like Tyner and Clarke, he doesn't let his technical virtuosity overwhelm the music. In recent years, he's toned down his thunderous approach to a more controlled and complimentary style that works perfectly in the piano trio context. Cobham, like all great drummers, knows how to listen to his collaborators and give them the sort of subtle but varied rhythmic support that marks a great percussionist.
Tyner's playing has evolved considerably over his career yet his technique is still as stunning as ever, with speed, inventive lines, spacious voicings, and harmonics his forte. Yet his keyboard vocabulary keeps evolving as well, with even richer chords and probing fourths and fifths that open up spaces for hard-edged, sleeting runs in the upper reaches of the keyboard. McCoy is more than a "heavy" pianist, he's a force of nature.
Tyner has recorded with both Clarke and Cobham, although never as group. Hopefully, they will document this extraordinary Trio, easily one of McCoy's best.