By Don Heckman
One couldn’t have asked for a better display of the stylistic and creative uncertainty rampant in today’s jazz world than the Sunday night Ellis Marsalis, McCoy Tyner, Brad Mehldau concert at the Greek Theatre. Give the Nederlander company credit for offering a rare jazz event at a venue that is usually far more oriented toward other genres. And understand that – assuming their desire to have something in the way of a headliner – they would feel the need to include such well known names as Tyner, Marsalis and Mehldau. (Even though the theatre seemed less than half full.)
But ultimately, it all comes down to the music, and what was presented said far more about uncertainty than it did about the still-vital jazz simmering beyond either the awareness or the interest of most of the mainstream media.
Start with Mehldau, who opened the show with a solo set. Although he has often displayed — usually with his trio — a sense of lift and propulsion in his playing, it was on the back burner for this event. Instead, he dipped into his contemporary classical music bag and pulled out a set of improvisations impacted by the love of repetitions present in composers such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich. The results were occasionally intriguing, far more often wearying.
Tyner, backed by bassist Gerald Cannon and drummer Eric Kamau Gravatt, was his usual authoritative self. He has moved through many stylistic areas since his John Coltrane days, of course, and the mode for this night was fairly mainstream, and lacking the full keyboard intensity that is present in his most compelling performances. The presence of guitarist Marc Ribot, touted as a guest star appearance, was largely a distraction. Although both Tyner and Ribot possess significant credentials as imaginative, envelope-stretching artists on their own, their methodology for working together was very different and very out of sync with each other.
The Marsalis set – which featured Delfeayo Marsalis on trombone and Jason Marsalis on drums – turned out to be the most engaging of the evening. Although Marsalis may be best known as the pater familias of a handful of talented jazz-playing sons, he is also an always appealing player who understands the intimacy of the improvisational process. That was never more apparent than in his performance of Thelonious Monk’s rarely heard piece, “Teo,” in which he captured the spirit of Monk without imitating the style.
In sum, however, the program offered an evening in which one could hear vestiges of what contemporary jazz has to offer, but not nearly enough. Yes, we live in a jazz era that is sorely lacking in prophets. And, yes, technical virtuosity has too often taken the place of creative flights of imagination. But the real music is still there, still opening new vistas, even though you might have to look past the large venues, go to a small club or seek out an under-publicized record label to find it.