Since the early 40s when McCoy Tyner started breaking rules and setting new boundaries for what jazz piano – indeed jazz music – was all about, he’s been a driving force in the music world. Now the venerable pianist returns with yet another of many reinventions, this one accessible to long-time fans and newcomers to his work.
His new album Guitars shows his range and charisma and his sense of fun as he directs musical verses meant for strings. Joined by Bill Frisell, Bela Fleck, John Scofield and others, Tyner’s newest creation is an exploration of musical interplay that you won’t want to miss.
Like other eminent musicians, his new album is a collection not only of new compositions, but also a DVD chronicling the development of the project itself. He has not only created songs with lots of elbow room for the guitar ambassadors he plays with to stretch and soar, he has given a unique perspective on the creation itself. The album tells stories and the DVD tells the story of storytelling. As he said to me via email: “Well, I’ve never done anything like that before. I’ve never made a video or DVD of a recording to be released by the record label I was under, and now that I have my own label, we decided to go ahead and give it a try. I think it worked very well – it adds something special, to be able to watch us do what we do.”
You wouldn’t necessarily have the same expectations for an established musician as a young upstart with something to prove. Tyner easily reminds the audience that his role as a master accompanist often puts him more in control than the other musicians. He shapes the songs into the forms they reach and no one questions when he has decided a song begins, ends, or needs to keep moving along.
For his Montreal performances through Saturday at l’Astral, you won’t find the bill studded with walk-ons and celebrity guests. It’s an intimate performance with just his trio, which includes Ron Carter and Jack DeJohnette. They will play songs they love to play and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear some favourites too.
Last night’s show featured a range of music from newer albums and songs that reached all the way back to the days with Coltrane. His version of “Moment’s Notice” indeed did evoke the qualities of old school jazz and the song itself. His long and cadenced melodies were instantly cut short as the mood changed seemingly on a whim with sharp breaks after long moody rhythms. His accompanying trio and guest Gary Bartz on alto made for a constantly moving sound that left the audience completely at the whim of the performers. They had an almost secret language, a way of understanding one another so that when someone watching thinks a solo is just ending, it’s only giving way to another collaborative movement.
It’s easy to think of the winner of five Grammys, over 80 albums released and countless influences that have broadened the spectrum of all music, but notably jazz, that a live performance would be a way of reliving the heyday, rather than inventing something new. Last night proved that Tyner has nothing to prove to anyone on stage. Just watching his fingers dance and subtly control the movements of a song like “Angelina” is enough to convince anyone that this innovator has still more to teach music, by learning and listening.
This isn’t the type of show where you’ll expect the unexpected. Rather, go in with open ears, an open heart and prepare to hear jazz piano the way it was meant to be played. This won’t be someone new showing off cleverness, because Tyner doesn’t have to prove anything.