This one-off concert, part of an ongoing celebration of the Barbican’s 25th anniversary, was subtitled “The Story of Impulse Records”. The New York-based record company, formed in 1960, brilliantly documented a period of unprecedented upheaval in jazz, charting the flowering of modal jazz and the explosion of free-form music. At the centre was the legendary saxophonist John Coltrane, and his seminal quartet featuring McCoy Tyner on piano.
It was with Coltrane that Tyner honed a trademark style that, falling just short of free-form abstraction, influenced every modern jazz pianist in the late 20th century. He is now 68, but Tyner’s resonating chords, dazzling runs and florid romanticism are in full cry.
Although tonight’s programme had passing references to the record company, the concert was really a celebration of the pianist himself, in spite of an opening set by his trio that was cut short after only three numbers. The excellent bass player, Gerald Cannon, was seen and not heard and Tyner’s full-volume, sustain-pedal- to-the floor chord work, though on song, sounded unbalanced even with the powerfully deliberate drumming of Eric Gravatt. The Latin-tinged “Suddenly” and Ellington’s “In a Mellow Tone” suffered, and though an unaccompanied, dark-toned rhapsodic ballad promised much, Tyner called a halt.
The gig resumed with a brash drum solo leading into an up-tempo swinger. A delicate Latin ballad and an unaccompanied extravaganza on a Coltrane theme completed the trio’s set. Bassist Cannon’s full-toned, pitch-perfect bass was audible and Tyner’s commanding technique was now properly balanced. With the addition of four horns, the repertoire referenced Impulse Records more frequently, and Tyner took to laying out behind the soloists. Angular UK alto saxophonist Jason Yarde bounced off Eric Alexander’s blues-flavoured tenor, and Byron Wallen’s warm trumpet sound blended with the sonorous trombone of Steve Turre, outstanding on “Search for Peace”. With the horns huddled round a microphone ad-libbing riffs and lots of eye contact, the gig developed a nice informality.
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