On different nights, the John Coltrane Quartet’s various members would take turns taking the lead, or so it seems to me on listening to their records, though it was probably a matter of accident and a listener’s perception as much as it was anyone’s plan. The European tour recordings that the Pablo label licensed in the 1970s and 1980s are a far more terrifying documentation of Elvin Jones’s power than the more restrained studio sessions from the same period. To me the 1965 sessions released in 2005 as One Down, One Up: Coltrane Live at the Half Note are the McCoy Tyner show. (Generations of saxophonists view those tapes as the pinnacle of Coltrane’s power, so again, it’s a matter of perception.) There’s an almost punk intensity to the pianist’s playing on those dates, the way he pounds out those left-hand ostinatos, the fire he lights under his bandmates on every tune. Tyner’s most important victories were harmonic and architectural, but he was also simply an unflagging source of power on the bandstand.
Was and sometimes still is. On Saturday night at l’Astral, the gorgeous little Ste. Catherine St. concert space the Montreal International Jazz Festival opened this summer and will operate year-round, Tyner led a quartet through a collection of tunes from his albums of the late ’60s and early ’70s on Blue Note and Milestone. Half the fun was getting to hear Tyner on this material instead of in a Coltrane tribute or a set of standards, and the choice seemed driven by the presence of Gary Bartz, a saxophonist who first rose to prominence in around 1970, often on Tyner dates. In fact, Bartz seemed to be the one calling the tunes.
On the Milestone and Blue Note dates, Tyner sought a musical personality distinct from Coltrane’s by throttling back on the intensity and deepening Coltrane’s exoticism. There’s a lot of African, Hispanic and Middle Eastern grooves on these tunes, and on Saturday, propelled by Eric Gravatt on drums, Tyner showed he remains capable of maintaining those grooves’ rhythmic propulsion even as he pushed and relaxed his timing. So he was both driving and fluid; the music was both urgent and playful.
Tyner is 70 now, his shoulders seemingly half as broad as when he was a young man, his voice barely above a whisper when he offered brief, cheerful introductions peppered with inside jokes he kept tossing Bartz’s way. He’s lost some of the precision and sheer force of his playing. His right-hand delivery of melody lines in parallel octaves sometimes missed a note, and the whole band would periodically lose the thread of a tune and cast about for a measure or two until they found it again. But there’s still something fiery at the heart of Tyner’s playing, a surprisingly hard defiance that recalls the Tyner of the Half Note sessions. Taking a solo turn on the ballad I Should Care, he would bring the volume up to crashing climaxes that were frankly out of character with the tune’s mood, but so emphatic they were enthralling on their own terms. And on Promise, a hard-driving blues tune with the prominent repetitive ostinato groove Tyner favoured all night, he started tracing hair-raising harmonic variations in a middle register between his left-hand bass and his right-hand melody, striding his left hand up to the middle of the keyboard to ingeniously subvert the tune’s harmonies with a third line between the other two. At moments like that, the show became more than a chance to rekindle memories of a great band of the past. It became a chance to hear a great pianist right now.