Following the gala festivities to open the new SFJAZZ Center on Wednesday night, the opening concert season got under way last night in the Center’s Miner Auditorium. This week’s concerts are subtitled Legacy; and last night the focus was on pianist McCoy Tyner, much of whose music was performed and who performed himself for a major portion of the second set. Tyner shared much of his performing time with another major “legacy” of jazz history, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson.
The two of them made abundantly clear why the SFJAZZ Center is so important. An art form that can produce performers as inventive and expressive as Tyner and Hutcherson deserves (and should demand) a space in which serious listening is prioritized over all other factors. Given its first significant workout, the Miner Auditorium shows all signs of being that space.
Tyner is still capable of making his piano roar with ten-finger masses of sound that always seem to lie somewhere on the boundary between chord and cluster. If his fingering is not what it used to be (Lord knows, I sympathize), he can still complement those chord/clusters with melodic lines so rich in embellishment that the listener is not always sure where the tune is. With his many years with John Coltrane behind him, Tyner now often seems to give the impression of channeling the more distant history of Art Tatum (who probably deserves to be called the Ferruccio Busoni of jazz, if not the Franz Liszt).
For all of that energetic forcefulness, however, the major listening experience came at the end of the evening with the encore of a quiet duet between Tyner and Hutcherson. This was where those of us on audience side could appreciate just how important listening is to the performers, as well as the audience. Hutcherson joked about how each could cover the other’s mistakes; but what mattered was that each, as an improviser, was always alert to what the other was doing and coming up with new things to add to the mix. The tunes themselves are less important than the ways in which jazz is all about that kind of in-the-moment interaction. It is a conversation in a language whose lexicon is being made up in the course of the “speaking;” and it is why I persist in calling jazz “chamber music by other means.”
The significance of jazz performance as an act of listening made for a necessary conclusion when such listening was in short supply earlier in the evening. Among the other performers on the bill, those most attuned to listening were on stage when Mary Stallings sang “I Thought About You” before Tyner took the stage. She was backed up by pianist Eric Reed (who also gave a stunning solo account of Tyner’s “Contemplation”), Matt Penman on bass, and Bryan Bowman on drums. Bowman was the one drummer of the evening who understood how strongly soft dynamics can impact the serious listener; and he provided just the right rhythm backing for Stallings’ singing style, with its heart-stopping use of strategic silences.
Penman is the current bass player in the SFJAZZ Collective; and, if so much of the second set was all about the art of intimate conversations, the first set, dominated by the Collective, was a disappointing array of (in the immortal words of Cool Hand Luke) “failure to communicate.” This is a large ensemble in which Bowman is joined by Miguel Zenón on alto saxophone, David Sánchez on tenor saxophone, Andre Hayward on trombone, Avishai Cohen on trumpet, Stefon Harris on vibraphone, Edward Simon on piano, and Jeff Ballard on drums. Each of these guys seemed to play with minimal (if that much) awareness of what the others were doing; and, as a result, just about everything Simon played was inaudible. (My initial reaction was that the acoustics still needed work; but it was clear during the second set that this was not the case.)
Much of the problem may well be dropped in Ballard’s lap. His drum work was forceful unto an extreme entirely inappropriate for the Miner Auditorium space. As a result he so dominated with every one of his beats that I could well imagine that the other Collective members had enough trouble listening to themselves to worry about listening to the others. Things improved significantly when Eric Harland took over the drum set. Not only could he attenuate his dynamics to a more suitable overall level, but also his own listening skills were given their best account in his interplay with John Santos’ consummate skill in making a pair of congas sound like a melodic instrument. (Ballard recently replaced Harland as the Collective’s drummer; so, to be fair to Ballard, he may still be going through a period of adjustment to the group.)
The bottom line is that the Miner Auditorium is definitely ready for action. Last night’s action may have made for a mixed bag. However, the space itself is a major asset; and SFJAZZ has put some imaginative planning into how they will fill it between this month and the middle of June. They built it, and now it is time for people who take their jazz listening seriously to come.