McCoy Tyner with Geri Allen and Kenny Barron at SFJAZZ

Harry S. Pariser By

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McCoy Tyner with Geri Allen and Kenny Barron
San Francisco, CA
January 18, 2015

Three of the jazz world's best known pianists recently came together at SFJAZZ in San Francisco, California for a memorable triptych of styles. Heading the bill was piano patriarch McCoy Tyner. Now 76, Tyner initially made his mark as a pianist in the John Coltrane Quartet before moving on to compose as well as to front his own ensembles. Over the decades, he has influenced generations of musicians while enhancing the lives of those who have come within range of his music. Not only has he developed his own instantly recognizable, highly influential and distinct piano style, but he also stands as one of the first American artists who dipped his toe in the African continent's cornocupia of musical instruments and styles. His album Sahara (Impulse, 1972), perhaps the best example of this, remains a classic.

Two pianists Tyner deeply influenced took the stage before him that evening. Geri Allen is one of the foremost jazz pianists performing today. A native of Detroit, Allen is currently the director of jazz studies at the University of Pittsburgh, her alma mater. Allen has an international (and well justified) reputation as a phenomenal pianist.

At 71, Kenny Barron remains a formidable pianist. Co-founder of the legendary Thelonious Monk tribute band Sphere, his latest CD is The Art of Conversation, a duet with bassist Dave Holland.

Following an introduction by SFJAZZ founder Randall Kline which came just after bassist Gerald Cannon and drummer Francisco Mela entered the stage and took their places, Allen and Tyner walked on to a standing ovation and cheers. Tyner then exited and Allen, her hair in braids and wearing a flowing purple outfit, took a seat at the Steinway and launched into Tyner's tranquil "Search for Peace." Tyner has has maintained that the a composition "has to do with a man's submission to God" and the "giving over of the self to the universe." Following an intro by Allen, the band joined in. Then Cannon, bent over his bass, took a powerful solo while Mela, also clad in suit and tie, kept the time before ending the piece with his mallets which he swirled up in the air.

Allen was then left alone to play a delightful rendition of Tyner's "4 By 5" on the 88s. Both her hands percussively meandered towards the keyboard's center, as her foot pumped the right pedal.

The band returned for a third composition, and Mela played the cymbals with his left hand, his lips moving visibly. Allen paused for a bass and drum duet following which Mela went to town on his kit, employing his foot pedal and both sticks. Allen then stood, bowed and left.

The thickset Barron, head shaved and hands pressed together, entered a few minutes thereafter. After relating how both he and Tyner had grown up in Philadelphia—"He's from West Philly. I'm from North Philly. We used to have gang fights."—Barron then invited the man himself to "come on out" which he promptly did.

Tyner exited once more shortly thereafter, and the unit commenced the tune "Lemuria" as Barron's fingers moved both authoritatively and lucidly on the keys. Mela kept the time with his colorful red-and-yellow painted sticks. The band exited as Barron announced Eubie Blake's "Memories Of You" and then played a lovely solo version. His final number was the Charlie Parker-influenced "And Then Again." During the number, Cannon worked his way up an down the frets, while Mela played his cymbal, hi-hat and snare, while Barron chimed in a note here and there. At the end, Barron extended his arm out towards the band and talked about Tyner's "gentle manner" and how he had "changed the face of piano" and "influenced so many people over the years."

Then it was time for "The Real McCoy," which as actually the title of a Tyner album (Blue Note, 1967). Formally clad in suit and white tie, Tyner sat down at the piano, pounded percussively —the fingers of his left hand broadly outstretched from his palm in his inimitable style before the band chimed in. Mela went heavy with his sticks on the hi-hat while Cannon carefully fingered his bass.

The characteristically soft spoken Tyner then said a few words before introducing "Fly With the Wind" the 1976 title track to his Milestone album of the same name. Following a brief intro from Tyner, the drums and bass kicked in. Tyner played metriculously, Cannon got heavy on the bass with powerful fingering, and Mela lightly tapped his cymbals. At the tune's conclusion, after a moment's discussion, Cannon and Mela left the stage and the lights dimmed as Tyner took an eloquent solo before the band joined him again to play Duke Ellington's "In a Mellow Tone." Tyner led off before the bass and drums entered, and Mela executed one last nifty (and quite impressive) solo. (The Cuban-born Mela, who was mentored by Roy Haynes, nearly stole the show). Mela then took Tyner arm in arm as they exited the stage, before all musicians re-entered for one last round of heartfelt standing applause.

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