The last time I saw Tyner was over a decade ago, fronting a big band which included Billy Harper and John Stubblefield. He was somewhat back in the mix that night, but the band breathed life into his vibrant original compositions, and his sometimes cloyingly sentimental interpretation of standards was as florid as ever. He was spritely and full of energy, looking every inch the jazz superstar that of course he is.
Last night's performance at The Sage in Gateshead was something of a reversal. No longer so spritely, Tyner has slowed down markedly both in his pianism and his movements on stage. Of course he's still instantly recognisable within seconds of striking the keys, but his soloing seemed a bit diffuse, overly percussive and even incoherent. He was noticeably carried by the bass/drums team of Gerald Cannon and Eric Kamau Gravatt for much of the time, but there were still many flashes of past glories. The main excitement, however, came from Lovano, whose fluency and mastery of the tenor saxophone was absolutely outstanding. The last time I saw him was with John Scofield and he impressed me then. His records rarely seem to do him justice, but live and unfettered he's a different proposition from his many overblown and over produced concept albums, made with both eyes firmly on the retail market. He's a jazz musician in the traditional sense - pure and simple.
I'd never have had Tyner and Lovano down as a great partnership, but it worked. Of course they released an album together last year (Quartet Live), and this short UK tour comes on the back of that release. Much of the material from the album was covered, including some of his best works from the late '60s and early '70s, my favourite Tyner decade and his creative peak. Samaya Luca, Search For Peace, Blues On the Corner, Fly With the Wind, Passion Dance and Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit stood out as particularly Tyner-esque, and Lovano took an unusual and angular meander through each. The style was modern mainstream, but Lovano pushed the envelope and at times played with the gravelly palette of Pharoah Sanders.
Cannon and Gravatt replaced Christian McBride and Jeff 'Tain' Watts from the album, and to be honest I felt that there were some compatability issues, particularly with the stiff drumming of Gravatt. Both were there as a cushion for the pianist, only really expanding musically when they were given their solo features. The solo features came along with predictable regularity, as did the rounds of applause each time from a particularly polite jazz-at-the-concert-hall audience.
Few would deny Tyner his standing ovation based on past achievements, but last night's concert, although enjoyable, was hardly standing ovation material. The encore of 'In A Mellow Tone' was the first sign of over-sentimentality, but I can't say I minded as I was enjoying what could possibly be my last chance to see and hear Tyner in the flesh. I'm not suggesting any imminent health collapse, but at 70 years old and with a hectic life in music behind him, anything could happen - just look at his contemporaries and count 'em now.
Sometimes just being there is enough, and that's true for both audiences and musicians with big reputations alike. Musically successful for the most part, I'm certainly glad I made the effort to be there at the love-in.