Concert Review: McCoy Tyner Quartet featuring Gary Bartz
Looking frail, but still playing brilliantly
McCoy Tyner brought his quartet featuring Gary Bartz on alto and soprano saxophones to the Regattabar in Cambridge, Mass., for two nights last weekend, the makeup dates necessitated by a February blizzard. Tyner and Bartz have a connection stretching back at least 45 years, to Bartz’s appearance on Tyner’s 1968 album Expansions, the first of the half-dozen albums they recorded together through the mid-1970s. (Tyner’s latest recording with Bartz as a sideman, 2004’s Illuminations, earned them a Grammy Award for “Best Jazz Instrumental Album, Individual or Group.”) The pair of septuagenarians—Tyner, 74, in a sporty white driving hat; Bartz, 72, wearing his matching white hair long and free—were joined for the Regattabar dates by the relatively youngish veterans Gerald Cannon on bass and Francisco Mela on drums. And by a series of packed houses, including first-set sellouts both nights.
The second set on Friday, April 5, drew a nearly full room as well. It commenced with “Fly With the Wind,” one of Tyner’s most recognizable compositions. Tyner played an intro on piano, the bass and drums kicked in, and then Bartz came in on alto for the lead line. Bartz took the first solo as well, bending low and putting body English into it. Cannon followed with the first of his several impressive extended solos for the set. Then Tyner took his turn, slowing the tempo for a spell before wrapping things up with a dazzling fleet-fingered right-hand run.
The burst of applause following the opener prompted a Tyner joke about wishing his mother could see this. He seemed in a good mood throughout the set, rasping pleasantries to the audience amid his song-title announcements in a quiet voice. His playing, too, has grown quieter in recent years. Gone, to a large extent, are the left-hand thunderclaps that helped establish Tyner’s unmistakable sound in the ’60s and ’70s. What remains is more of a soul-quenching steady rain. To shift metaphors for a moment to baseball, Tyner these days is like a veteran pitcher who has lost some hop from his fastball but ably compensates for it through artistry and wisdom.
Bartz’s playing remains at full strength, as might be expected of a man who would get up and run a 5K footrace the next morning. (“Ran my first race in 25 years this morning along the Charles River in Boston, to benefit those with spinal cord injuries,” he posted on Facebook. “I won for my age bracket. I was the only one in my age bracket :) It was so cold, but very inspiring.”) But it, too, distills decades of experience. Bartz is fond of insisting that he never improvises, by which he means that everything he plays is deliberate, albeit spontaneously composed. (“Everything I play I mean to play,” he has written, also on Facebook. “The only time I improvise is when I make a mistake.”)
This was particularly in evidence on the second and third tunes played that set, Tyner’s own “Ballad for Aisha” (written for his wife, who was in the audience) and Duke Ellington’s “In a Mellow Tone.” Bartz switched to a curved soprano sax for both of them, and for each constructed, on the fly, a gracefully plotted solo. Cannon contributed worthy solos to each as well, and the tunes ended, respectively, with a Tyner piano outro and Cannon laying out for a few final thoughts on the Duke number from sax, piano and drums.
The band then exited for a solo piano rendition of the Ralph Rainger standard “If I Should Lose You” that Tyner somehow made both lush and understated. Two more forceful Tyner favorites concluded the evening. Mela excelled on his only drum solo of the set, on “Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit.” Bartz navigated the tricky head on “Blues on the Corner,” then took a solo that masterfully coupled earthiness and elegance. Mela wore an especially large smile as he accompanied this one, which Tyner had recorded the year before the drummer’s birth, on the 1967 Blue Note classic The Real McCoy. Tyner himself on these last two, per usual, was casually brilliant.
The audience rewarded Tyner and the quartet with a standing ovation, and as he rose from the piano bench to wave back his thanks, Tyner suddenly looked surprisingly frail for a man who had just gotten done making so much music. There was no encore. But there would be two more full sets of music the next night.