Breathing with McCoy

Yoshi’s in Oakland last Tuesday was the perfect way to relieve separation pangs from Ken Burns’ epic PBS series Jazz, which had been educating me, along with six million other TV viewers, in January. The snazzy, uptown jazz club in Jack London Square hosts the great pianist McCoy Tyner every year in a superb two-week residency. This was the first night of his trio’s week. When a sold-out house cheers the entrée of the drummer and bass player as loudly as the leader, you know you are seeing real players who can drive the bus and take head-shaking solos. Indeed: Stanley Clarke on bass, Al Foster on drums.

Tyner, now in his early 60s, is one of the most dynamic, exultant composer-pianists of all time. He has awesome spiritual power and speed, and when I first saw him play solo 25 years ago at the legendary Jazz Showcase in Chicago, he took the top of my head off. No different last week. His clusters and runs made me feel out-of-body, like a sustained lift, almost the way you feel when you are starting to pass out. He was in the celebrated quartet of John Coltrane from 1960-65, and in no small part did he contribute to its success. From this learned background, his affirmative music draws from many different countries—Africa, the Arabic-speaking world, and European classical music. For him, he once said, “All music is a journey of the soul into new, uncharted territory.”

With sidekick stars such as Clarke, a first-generation fusionist who came to prominence in the early 1970s as a founding member of Chick Corea’s Return to Forever, and Miles Davis’ brilliant all-round drummer Foster, Tyner was musically greeting old friends and Telarc recording buddies again. They played for each other as much as for us, with no set list and no hurry, grandly beginning with Tyner’s tribute, “Trane-like.”

Tyner’s instinctual music, whether his own compositions or involved interpretations, breathes, creating deep organic tension and release. His renditions of standards “Never Let Me Go” and “Will You Still Be Mine?” or his own gospel-y “Happy Time,” all rise and settle within his unerring sense of form and structure.

Though 13 years separate Clarke and Tyner, Clarke’s massive technique on acoustic and electric bass ground him multi-generationally on originals like “In the Tradition Of.” You could hear audience members sucking in their breath as he slid and slapped strings—his virtuosic fusion playing has influenced many players. This trio offered a rare opportunity to hear a bit more straight-ahead playing. And jeez, he still looks like a handsome, baby-faced, uh, genius. But Foster was the total classic-looking jazz guy. Where Tyner is regal and Clarke is casually chic, Foster—in his impeccable three-piece buttermilk linen suit—swung like a bebopper, kissed skins on the ballads and exploded in a motherflurry of an outside solo. In a triumvirate of jazz giants, this was a perfect pyramid.