In his intro to McCoy Tyner and Charles McPherson at 80, a tribute concert honoring these two jazz giants at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater April 5-6, saxophonist Sherman Irby summed up pianist/composer Tyner’s distinguished career in one sentence.  “McCoy Tyner has presented the world with almost six decades of pure excellence,” he began.

From a box seat beside the stage, Tyner acknowledged both the crowd, now standing for an ovation, and the 15-person ensemble about to interpret select tunes from his extensive discography. (Health issues prevented Tyner from performing in the concert himself.)

Fittingly, the JALC orchestra opened with “Inceptions,” the first track on Tyner’s debut album by the same name, on the Impulse! imprint in 1962. Two current members of the prestigious McCoy Tyner Trio—music director and bassist Gerald Cannon and drummer Joe Farnsworth—sat in; led by these two adepts, the band churned through the quick-silver melody, one of Tyner’s most recognizable heads.

Drawing from Tyner’s second album for Blue Note, Tender Moments, in 1976, the orchestra next performed “Man From Tanganyika,” Tyner’s initial foray into orchestrating for horns. Arranged by JALC trombonist Chris Crenshaw, the tune wends wildly through the full range of woodwinds, from flute to trombone to tuba. Tyner “got the idea, I was told, from working with Art Blakey and the Messengers,” Irby explained. (Standout solos by JALC orchestra members Dion Tucker on trombone, Kenny Rampton on trumpet, and Stefan Schatz on drums.)

Some of the more subdued moments of the evening derived from “Ballad for Aisha,” an ode to Tyner’s wife that first appeared on his 1978 album Together (Milestone). Flutist Hubert Laws soloed most famously on the original; JALC multi-reedist Ted Nash, who arranged this concert version, recalled the original with tight harmonic blasts in the horns and his own lilting improvisations on flute.   

Cannon and Farnsworth then rejoined the group for “Blues on the Corner,” arranged by Irby, the tune that closed out Tyner’s first album for Blue Note, The Real McCoy, recorded in 1967, just after Tyner had left the John Coltrane Quartet. This number, whimsical and jaunty, showed off Tyner’s deft use of form and chordal clusters and his sophisticated take on groove and feel. In his intro to this tune, Irby quoted Coltrane on Tyner’s style, from the original liner notes: “McCoy Tyner has taste…he can take anything, no matter how weird, and make it sound beautiful. It’s all of a piece because he built it that way. That is McCoy Tyner.”  

The JALC Orchestra closed the first half of the program with Tyner’s usual opener, “Fly with the Wind,” from his 1976 album of the same name for Milestone. The piece begins with impressionistic improvisations in flute and percussion before accelerating into an exciting trumpet-propelled figure; JALC pianist Dan Nimmer distinguished himself with virtuosic solos and spot-on comping. (As an aside, playing Tyner’s tunes for Tyner is no small matter. Yet throughout the evening, Nimmer’s confident approach to the keyboard was nothing short of superlative.)

The second set of the evening featured the work of saxophonist and composer Charles McPherson, who matches Tyner in stature while differing in style. The bebop master “is a true alto saxophonist,” Irby said about the second honoree. “He plays the instrument with fire, passion, and precision. He can pull your heart strings with one note, and dazzle you with virtuosity and imagination. There is only one Bird, one Stitt, one Cannonball—and one Charles McPherson.”

To lead off the set, the JALC orchestra reprised the first two tunes from McPherson’s 1995 album Come Play With Me (Arabesque): “Jumping Jacks,” a subtly insistent swing tune featuring trumpeter Wynton Marsalis on a silken solo, and “Marionette,” a sparkling Latin piece with longtime JALC member Victor Goines and newcomer Camille Thurman shouldering hefty tenor sax solos.

“I’m so proud of these young men and women [in the orchestra],” McPherson said upon taking the stage. “And very honored that they would have me.

“I’d also like to thank a lot of friends and family that actually came from San Diego—my whole neighborhood is here. Which is kind of funny because I’m the loudest guy in the neighborhood, and they can hear me for free, all day long, every day,” McPherson quipped.

For his first tune of the evening, McPherson blazed through the title cut from his 1968 album, Horizons (Prestige), setting a lightning-swift pace for the ensemble to match (it did). McPherson followed with “Nightfall,” a dramatically geometric piece from “Sweet Synergy Suite,” a jazz/Afro-Cuban composition that he wrote for the San Diego Ballet. (“Marionette,” played earlier in the set, is also part of the Suite; McPherson wrote the latter tune for his youngest daughter, Camille. Camille went on to become a dancer with the SDB, and McPherson is now one of its resident composers.)

McPherson closed his set with his homage to pianist Bud Powell, “Bud Like,” from his 2015 album The Journey (Capri). Like Powell, McPherson’s harmonic ideas push the boundaries of bebop without breaking the mold.

McPherson ended the evening with characteristic humor: “This is ‘Bud Like,’ and not ‘Bud Light.’ Though I’m sure that Bud Powell had Bud Light and that he liked it,” he joked before apologizing. “I’m trying to be linear here, but I just quit smoking and I’m a nervous wreck.”

(Reprinted from the 12 April 2019 issue of Downbeat Online)