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Swing survivor
How does jazz pianist McCoy Tyner deal with a career's worth of ups and downs? Improvise
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'I've rolled with the punches--it wasn't always easy.'
'I've rolled with the punches--it wasn't always easy.'

Jazz piano giant McCoy Tyner's no stranger in this town. Over the years he's played several Madison gigs, including two at the Wisconsin Union Theater, in 1973 and '78. It's been a while, but Tyner returns to the WUT on Friday, Oct. 6, at 8 p.m. It's the first act in the classy new Isthmus Jazz Series, which later this season brings in Eddie Palmieri and Dianne Reeves.

Tyner's whopping career spans some 50 years; he has 80 albums and four Grammys under his belt. At 67, he's not lettin' it slide. The latest incarnation of the McCoy Tyner trio cooks. It has superplayers Charnett Moffett on bass and Eric Kamau Gravatt on drums. This is intimate, stripped-down, pure jazz, Jack. Don't mourn the lack of horns. When Tyner's famous fingers fly over the ivories making modal soul you won't miss a beat. Sweet.

Madison has its fair share of hardcore jazzheads. They packed Overture Hall for Sonny Rollins last year, and Tyner at WUT should draw a similar crowd. But maybe post-bop's not your bag. You've heard the rumors that jazz is dead. And a few years back Village Voice jazz critic Gary Giddins quit reviewing, calling jazz an art form of the past. Why should you care if Tyner's coming to town?

Here's why. Europe's gone nuts for American jazz. Continental labels are taking risks while the U.S. music biz does its best to suppress sounds that don't make mass-market millions. But jazz is juicy African-American fruit, and these days we have to reclaim whatever's left that makes our country great.

Tyner, 67, is an archetypal example of America's best, born under a good star, in his right time and place. "I was lucky to have a mom who cared and wanted to help me," he says during the phone interview last week. "I loved her dearly. I miss my mom a lot."

Over his father's objections, this strong woman encouraged him to take lessons in his native Philadelphia. "I was 13 when I started. My mother was a beautician. We didn't have a piano, but she had three clients who let me play theirs. I was committed. I had some great teachers. I couldn't wait to get home and practice - I'd hit the keys right after school. I picked up Beethoven, Chopin, Bach. It was good, and not just for technical facility. People say Bach was an improviser, and you can hear it in his music. I got to peer into his world.

"My mother loved piano, she liked to hear it. About a year after I started she said okay, you seem like you really want to play, so I'll buy you one. We lived behind the beauty shop and upstairs of it. The shop was the biggest room we had, so that's where the piano went."

One day Tyner came home from school and found bebop legend Bud Powell sitting in the shop playing that piano. Powell suffered some racial misfortunes in the city of brotherly love, but he had family there and for a while he lived in an apartment around the corner from Tyner's house. "Powell was a great inspiration to me. He didn't talk that much, but just being around him was great. He was a genius. He'd be walking around the neighborhood with people following him everywhere."

Tyner formed an R&B band. "I loved it. We played house parties, fairs, talent shows - the thing is, there was a lot of R&B and blues in Philadelphia back then. Most of the musicians were my seniors but they'd hear me play and start calling me for gigs. One of the bands was called Daisy Mae and Her Hep Cats. Even the name sounds like R&B, doesn't it? They had a lot of gigs in the area."

Daisy Mae socked out some funky '50s R&B on Philly's Gotham label. Some of it's been reissued. There's no indication of Tyner on any of these tracks, but type the band's name into Amazon.com's "popular music" box and take a listen to the sound of Tyner's teens.

"That's how we cut our teeth," he says. "It gave me a chance to express myself at that stage of my life. That's what I was feeling. Blues is the foundation of jazz. Jazz didn't pop outta nowhere. A lot of very intellectually astute artists came out of very humble beginnings. I was no exception, and I'm thankful. A horn player pickin' up a horn and honkin', that's the feeling in blues or R&B or modern jazz. It's all the same thing, except in jazz you're playin' more notes and intellectualizing. In the end it's all the same spiritual outlet."

Post-bop incubated in the hothouse clubs clubs of '50s Philadelphia. Trumpet hit-maker Lee Morgan, who later recorded several sessions with Tyner on piano, was there. So was saxman supreme John Coltrane, who back then was playing with the king, Miles Davis.

Tyner had some gigs with a local trumpeter who was a good friend of Coltrane's. "John was home, taking a break from Miles. They argued about something, money, probably. John liked my playing. He told me, ‘I'm gonna leave Miles and form my own band and I want you to be in it.' I thought, wow, what a beautiful honor. I was really young, just 17."

That was 1955. Coltrane finally made the break in '60, recording My Favorite Things on Atlantic with Elvin Jones on drums, Steve Davis on bass and Tyner on piano.

For the next five years Tyner's piano was integral to the Coltrane sound. After his seminal Love Supreme, the god of tenor sax edged into free jazz and married Alice McLeod, a harpist who replaced Tyner on piano.

Colorful legends abound about Tyner after his departure from Coltrane's quartet. He drove a cab; he did sideman gigs with Ike and Tina Turner. Not true, Tyner says, though it took him two more years to make his mark as a bandleader. In '67 - a watershed year - he blasted to the top of post-bop with his first Blue Note album, The Real McCoy, with Elvin Jones on drums, Joe Henderson on sax and Ron Carter on bass. Like A Love Supreme, it became a signature of '60s jazz.

Also in '67 - the middle of the Vietnam era - Martin Luther King joined the mushrooming antiwar movement and the Summer of Love flowered in hippie enclaves from Haight-Ashbury to Miffland. In Mad City we wore the vinyl rings off our Trane and Tyner albums. Ben Sidran, talking about 1967 in A Life in the Music, remembers being totally in awe of Tyner's style. "It was so brilliant, it just shut me down."

In '67, drugs and booze wiped Coltrane out. In '72, Lee Morgan got shot by his common-law wife in front of Slugs, a long-gone, funky little East Village club where post-bop cooked on all four burners and jazz fans sipped straight-up Scotch, bopping their heads on the downbeat while shady deals went down in the back room.

How did Tyner survive this scene? "Well, I got married very young. My ex-wife and I were girlfriend and boyfriend when we were practically still kids. We stayed married over 20 years and had three sons. I had somethin' to hold onto. I was too busy having a family to hang out. I lived a pretty normal life, by my definition. That's what saved me. I can look back on those days and say, wow, I'm still here, and richer for it."

But flower power took another punch at old-fashioned, acoustic post-bop. In '67, saxman Charles Lloyd started playing it psychedelic. (I admit it " I still turn the volume way up when I hear Love In or Forest Flower on WORT.) Two years later, on the heels of Woodstock, Miles Davis' electronic fusion album Bitches Brew made the pop Top 40. In 1970, Carlos Santana popped Latin beats out of the box with his rock/jazz/salsa take on Tito Puente's "Oye Como Va."

In the '70s Tyner switched to Milestone and broadened his sound. He took to travel - North Africa, Spain, South America. "Places I dreamed about as a kid," he says. Sahara, recorded in '72, is as far into free jazz as Tyner got - ancient-sounding and loose like shifting sands. Sahara received two Grammy nominations and was record of the year in the Downbeat critics' poll.

In the years that followed he flirted with guaguanco and ambient fusion, played a lot of post-bop, toured, put out a string of albums that didn't get much airplay, and collected some Downbeat awards. But the new fusion generation's white keyboardists - particularly Bitches Brew alums Joe Zawinul and Chick Corea - became international commercial jazz successes.

In Europe, ex-pat American players and a young generation of mostly white world-fusion players built a thriving indie scene, but in the culturally stingy Reagan years you could hardly find jazz on your radio dial in the States. Post-bop became a blast from the past.

A couple years ago I found a late-'90s re-release of Tyner's 1981 La Leyenda de la Hora (with longtime collaborator Bobby Hutcherson on vibes and the great Cuban-born players Paquito d'Rivera and Ignacio Berroa on saxes and drums) in a rack of Latin jazz CDs. Tyner's muscular style's a perfect fit for latter-day Cubop, and that's what this is. The knockout cut, Tyner's classic post-bop "Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit," gets updated here with tumbao and more.

I discovered two dynamite, Grammy-winning Tyner albums from the recent past, when we had a sax-playing President. Damn, those discs sound good. On Journey (1994) Tyner's powerhouse piano's supported by a large ensemble on a set of tracks with surprising range, from slow-swinging "Juanita" to the favela-flavored, oddly named "Samba Dei Ber." Infinity (1995), in quintet format, is even better. There's classic '60s post-bop on "Flying High,"scrumptiously swingin' New-Orleans-style solo on "Blues Stride."

Tyner's still on a roll. His 2003 Land of Giants, with Hutcherson on vibes, Charnett Moffett on bass and Eric Harland on drums, has it all - blues and bop, bossa nova, ballads, a lotta soul and a resonant reprise of "Contemplation," a lush tune off Tyner's definitive early album, The Real McCoy.

Moffett, on bass with Tyner Friday night, is the son of Charles Moffett, a Philadelphia drummer who played with free-jazz sax seer Ornette Coleman years ago. With his heritage and name it's natural that the younger Moffett's become a top bassist and a leading bandleader in his own right, reaping rave reviews for recent albums relevantly titled For the Love of Peace and Internet.

The drummer on this tour, another Philadelphia homey, Eric Kamau Gravatt, played with Tyner, and with Weather Report, in the '70s. Then he dropped out for 20 years to raise his family before picking up his sticks again in the new millennium. "He's a very great drummer," Tyner says. "He knows his African rhythms. He's very close to me that way. He's played all kinds of music. And I met Charn when he was a little kid. It's amazing how loose ends come together. This trio really works."

The moral of this long story is evolution. Europe has its new-age, old-world jazz, and in the States socially conscious hip-hop's become what post-bop was in the '60s - brainy black music on the cutting edge. But jazz adapts and survives.

"I've rolled with the punches - it wasn't always easy," Tyner says. "But I've had a lot of highlights. I'm thankful. And I'm not finished yet! I've always got new things on the horizon. I like to mix things up, going for different approaches without taking anything away from my style or what I'm trying to say."

His latest, 80th recording, Illuminations (2004), got Tyner his fourth Grammy. There's a stellar lineup on this CD - longtime collaborator Gary Bartz on sax, Christian McBride on bass, Lewis Nash on drums and New Orleans trumpet player Terence Blanchard. You can tell Tyner's feeling good. This joyful album mixes plush post-bop with some dance-happy departures. "Angelina" plunges between Latin jazz and full-scale salsa. "New Orleans Stomp" is flat-out boogie-woogie.

"I used to play in bands like that," Tyner says. "I like to keep those elements up. New Orleans is the foundation of jazz. People think I'm a very serious musician, and I am, but the secret ingredient is a short but magic word. You gotta have fun."

As we come up on next month's elections, you're gonna need some of that. If you miss Tyner's Union Theater concert this weekend, you're missing out.

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