Oct. 16, 2011
Better than: Listening to a scratched up jazz record from the '60s for the thousandth time.
When 72-year-old McCoy Tyner walked onstage, his steps were small and almost fragile. When he spoke, his voice barely rose above a whisper.
But when he put his hands on the piano, both of those things ceased to matter.
Tyner belongs to the small circle of jazz royalty, having played piano with John Coltrane's Coltrane Quintet on heavy hitters like A Love Supreme, and he brought his decades of almost peerless experience to the relatively intimate (and certainly regal) Herbst Theatre as part of this year's SF Jazz Festival.
With bassist Gerald Cannon, drummer Joe Farnsworth, silky smooth vocalist José James, and excellent tenor saxophonist Chris Potter, Tyner lent his touch to a number of classic standards, like "You Are Too Beautiful" and "Autumn Serenade" from 1963's John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, which features Tyner. Tyner mostly avoided the spotlight, speaking between only a few songs and letting Potter do some of the more virtuosic playing in the role of a Coltrane stand-in.
On "Dedicated to You" -- yet another standard from John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman -- Tyner brought the slow, smooth, delicate tune to life, not with long solos or showy runs but with sensitive, understated accompaniment. Potter helped create the song's aura of romance with his rich, smoky style.
Billed as "The Gentle Side of John Coltrane," the set did showcase Coltrane's downtempo oeuvre, but Tyner made it his own from the moment he first walked on stage, to standing applause from several members of the audience. And in "Blues on the Corner," from his 1967 album The Real McCoy, Tyner emphasized his catchier, more upbeat side, with a few restrained strands of bebop influences.
Cannon and Farnsworth supported Tyner with rock solid, almost militaristic precision, and with some pleasant solos to boot.
Appearing with the group for several vocal numbers in the middle of the set, James' deep, baritone voice was nearly flawless. We must admit, though, we were a little disappointed that he decided not to solo or scat during any of the songs, especially since most of the vocal sections were quite short -- only a few stanzas of lyrics at the start and end of the songs. More confusingly, he played the somewhat odd role of hype man for Tyner, reverently repeating Tyner's name and gesturing toward him as the audience applauded after a few songs.
With his white jacket and humble demeanor, Tyner seemed, in some sense, to be a vessel for the classic era of jazz, a symbol for a musical time when giants like Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie and Tyner himself ruled the genre.
After about seven songs, he said simply, "We had fun. Hope to see you again soon." When the audience's enthusiastic standing ovation called for more of the man they had come to see, Tyner returned to the stage and obliged not with an encore but with a bow -- a gesture that was sincere but may have left a few audience members slightly disappointed. But more than likely, they were very satisfied with the rest of his set.
Personal bias: If I could be any sax player, I'd be Coltrane -- except I wouldn't, because I don't think I could be that good at anything.
Personal beef: That theater was gorgeous (as always), but it got quite toasty in there for a cool Sunday evening.
Most amusing moment: When the SF Jazz Festival representative who introduced Tyner asked who in the audience wasn't a member of SF Jazz, members booed them -- playfully. Sort of.