As it turned out Ashley Kahn was indisposed so a panel had to be hastily organized that included local broadcaster Rusty Hassan and saxophonist and Coltrane family member Carl Grubbs. Their presentation brought home the impact Impulse! records, (now part of the Verve Music Group) has had on the evolution of jazz, especially during the 1960s when John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner's recordings began to appear on that label, along with, among others, Art Blakey, Marion Brown, Benny Carter, Alice Coltrane, Gil Evans, Chico Hamilton, Keith Jarrett, Elvin Jones, Yusef Lateef, Charles Mingus, Oliver Nelson, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, Horace Silver and Sun Ra. (See: www.vervemusicgroup.com/label.aspx?lid=2.)
A short move from the lecture room to the auditorium and one of these legends walked out onto the stage to lead his septet through a powerful set. Down Beat Hall of Fame member McCoy Tyner looks a little frail these days but, judging from the way he attacks the piano, there is no diminishment of his vital force. In the context of this group, Tyner does not put his piano out front too much. Apart from a short solo feature on "Will You Still Be Mine?" to open the program, he focused on providing support for his sidemen, four stellar soloists: Wallace Roney on trumpet, Steve Turre on trombone, alto saxophonist Donald Harrison and tenor player Eric Alexander. The rhythm section was filled out by equally distinguished performers, Charnet Moffett on bass and drummer Eric Gravatt. The program was dominated by Tyner originals, "Blues on the Corner," "Happy Days" and "Angelina." Curtis Fuller's "A La Mode" and John Coltrane's "Impressions" rounded out the set.
Miles Davis had one criticism of the classic Coltrane quartet, of which Tyner was a member; Miles suggested that they operated constantly on the same dynamic level. The implication was that his pianist, Herbie Hancock, had a better "touch" than Tyner. Well, in a way, he was correct. At the same time, however, he was missing the point. Tyner has shown a command of dynamics at times, especially during his trio outings. But in the context of a larger ensemble it is all about power driving the group forward. Listen to his solo leading to Coltrane's entry on "Chim Chim Cheree," the key (and somewhat overlooked) performance of The John Coltrane Quartet Plays on, of course, the Impulse! label. It was the exactly this McCoy Tyner who was on display this evening. The result was that, on the one hand, I was aware of the lack of dynamic variation, but, on the other hand, I didn't care. I would have liked to hear a ballad at some point, something like "Prayer for Peace." "Angelina" seemed like a ballad for a moment but then moved into a medium-tempo groove. But, in spite of this, it all worked. With Tyner/Moffett/Gtavatt stoking the fires, the soloists took advantage of the open, mainly modal structures to reach high plateaus of creativity: Turre's gleeful exclamations, Roney's crisp, elegant phrasing, the two saxophonists' intricate scale-running. Tyner contributed brief solo forays, Gravatt showed why he managed to hold down one of the hottest percussion chairs in jazz--Weather Report, while Moffett stepped forward to demonstrate that even a wah-wah pedal can be used tastefully. And kudos to whoever controlled the sound--everything was audible and it was never too loud! It was a great set by some fabulous musicians that flew by far too quickly.
The next morning I was able to sit in on two of the three workshops offered by group members. (Two of them ran simultaneously so, unfortunately, I could not catch Wallace Roney.) I have attended quite few jazz master classes recently: Roy Hargrove and Paquito D'Rivera at the DC Jazz Festival, Eric Alexander and Steve Turre here. Everyone has a different approach, but there could not have been more contrast between Alexander and Turre, the saxophonist all scale/chord theory, the trombonist more focused on words of wisdom and anecdotes from 48 years playing the instrument, although he did include a great demonstration of the use of mutes and plungers. "When the plungers leave jazz I'll go with them," was Charles Mingus' view, and I can't think of anyone who would agree more than Steve Turre!
It is hard to overemphasize the value for students of this kind of sharing by established musicians, or, in general the value of the kind of programs going on at Clarice Smith. Maria Schneider was due in next; watch this space.