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Piano Legends at the Blue Note: McCoy Tyner Trio; Mal Waldron Trio

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While we can lament the overall reduction in unusual appearances, the Blue Note, now one of the big three remaining jazz clubs, starts off the regular season with two intriguing weeks of piano history.
After hosting Oscar Peterson, the Blue Note shifts its focus to famous piano sidemen-turned-headliners. While taking very divergent paths to these club dates, Tyner and Waldron have participated in a lot of jazz history between them.
Before beginning, let me offer a comment about a Blue Note practice I find particularly objectionable: the double bill. Having to sit through Mac Gollehon before Tyner, and Benny Green before Waldron, rather than only pay to watch the half of the show I was interested in is unfortunate. This routine is only beneficial if both artists are of interest (like the John Scofield/Pat Martino double bill a few years back) but that rarely happens.
McCoy Tyner is best known to jazz listeners not for his long string of releases on Impulse, Blue Note and Milestone but for his position as John Coltrane's last regular pianist. Participating in the innovations of Coltrane from 1960-1965 has had an obvious effect on Tyner's subsequent work.

Tyner spent the week with his regular sidemen: Avery Sharpe on bass and Aaron Scott on drums. The level of communication between the three is a testament to the working band; too often all-star line-ups fail to deliver due to a simple lack of time playing together. The trio format gives Tyner room to stretch out in thickly chorded solos and fully explore the ideas that seem to flow effortlessly from his fingers. Like many musicians who cut their teeth in the rapidly evolving jazz world of the '60's, Tyner is now firmly rooted in tradition. While there are flashes of Extensions or Atlantis, Tyner seems most comfortable in the hard-bop genre.

The set began with a rousing tribute to his former employer, "Trane-like", encapsulating what has made Tyner one of the foremost players to come out of the '60's Blue Note/Impulse tradition: a firm sense of melody and harmony, a strong percussive attack and improvisations that explore a full emotional spectrum. Tyner gets the most one can out of an acoustic piano. Sharply tacking, a lush solo interpretation of "My Foolish Heart" followed.

Tyner's sidemen seem to be perfect for what he is trying to accomplish musically. Very sympathetic yet still with personality, they complement his playing and, especially in Sharpe's case, support his lines wonderfully.

What is strange about Avery Sharpe is that he plays both upright and electric bass. Now while this is not uncommon, it is odd to see someone switch from one to the other during a set. Sharpe's acoustic playing is aggressive yet tasteful. He uses the bow sparingly and structures his solos with an unusual take on the fretboard. When he switches to six-string electric, as he did for one number, it is disconcerting. His style is very typical of someone who began playing electric in the mid-seventies. Such flashiness seems out-of-place for a piano trio, and the thinner, more metallic sound, okay with no basis for comparison, frustrates after a rich upright's tone. The moody and energetic closer "Night in Bahia" was a great solo vehicle. Sharpe was back on upright and Tyner explored so many themes within one three-minute stretch that it seemed like a concert unto itself. The last time I saw Tyner, he was touring with his big band. He is much better served in a smaller format, where he can be the center of attention.

The next week brought an all-too-rare appearance by Mal Waldron. Being able to see him is treat enough, but the possibilities loomed larger by his choice of sidemen. Rather than pick "young lions", Waldron chose musicians with pedigrees as impressive as his own: Reggie Workman and Andrew Cyrille (who seem to be everywhere these days). Probably the greatest compliment to a musician is not the size of his crowd (and on a weekday night, the

Blue Note was not more than one-quarter full) but the respect of his fellow artists. Seeing fellow piano greats Don Friedman and James Williams in the audience lent an impressive air to the evening's engagement.

Unfortunately, since Waldron resides in Europe and his recent releases are not available stateside, I was unfamiliar with his material. In ways, however, this can be a benefit. Standards can get tired and not knowing how a song is supposed to progress make twists that much more interesting. What surprised me was that his set was almost completely comprised of ballads. While he has had his fair share of straight gigs, I did expect someone who has played with Mingus, Dolphy, Shepp and Lacy to choose material more compelling on the surface.

This just showed my ignorance. Waldron took the slower material and used the space to craft beautiful and thought-provoking lines. He never resorted to the flowery runs all to common to ballad piano accompaniment. His playing was deliberate, each idea slowly blossoming and leading logically into the next. While Andrew Cyrille can be a loud drummer, his ability to accompany Waldron's quiet musings with taste show why he is one the better elder drum-men still playing. Reggie Workman, who probably has never played a flashy line in his life, was the perfect foil for Waldron and Cyrille, providing solid and melodic harmonies throughout.

During these week engagements, it is always difficult to choose which night to go. For Waldron, seeing him on opening night may not have been the best idea. The feeling of three musicians getting used to each other was apparent in the music and this perhaps explains the material. I imagine that Waldron most likely became more comfortable with the setting as the week progressed and took more chances with his song choice. The final piece of the evening was probably an indicator of his performance on the coming Thursday or Friday. Moving away from slow material, Waldron transported the audience back to the early days of avant-garde piano, after post-bop, but before free jazz had become the vogue. He effectively switched from melodic accompaniment to dissonant chordal runs, while Cyrille took full opportunity to play something other than the cymbals. Workman even got the chance to play the low bass chords of which he is so fond!

The set was tragically short, especially since Waldron was seemingly becoming relaxed. It is here that one wishes Benny Green had been dispensed with and Waldron, Workman and Cyrille had been giving the time allotment they deserved.

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