McCoy Tyner's been one of jazz top pianists for the last forty-plus years, but his career as a bandleader has never produced the kind of albums that he played on early in his career, such as John Coltranes My Favorite Things and A Love Supreme. He's continued to refine his style and his composition technique, and he's stayed at the top of his field. With his newest release, Illuminations, Tyner shows that he can still put together standout performances.
To record this album, Tyner assembled a strong supporting cast. Saxophonist Gary Bartz has frequently worked with Tyner since 1968, and they've clearly developed a rapport. Terence Blanchard, a one-time trumpeter in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, has composed scores for a number of Spike Lee films, including Mo' Better Blues, Bamboozled, and 25th Hour. Christian McBride has worked with Tyner in the past, and also with top pianists such as Brad Mehldau and Billy Taylor. Like McBride, drummer Lewis Nash has played with Diana Krall. He's also played on previous sessions led by McCoy Tyner and Oscar Peterson.
Although the quintet plays under Tyner's lead, Nash is really the star of Illuminations. The Tyner composition "New Orleans Stomp" provides him with his first chance to really shine. His playing isn't as dramatic here as it is elsewhere in the album, but it's technically impressive. He keeps the rest of the group steady with his quick rolls and hits -- he's as tight as can be while skipping around the snare. This steadiness allows Blanchard to step forward with a strong solo full of runs and oddly-voiced high notes. About two-thirds of the way through the track, everyone except McBride and Nash cut out for 45 seconds. McBride handles the spotlight adequately, but Nash nails his sections.
McBride's top moment, not surprisingly, is on the track he penned himself. "West Philly Tone Poem" is a slow duet with Tyner. McBride bows his bass, softening and relaxing the mood toward the end of a disc that's mostly full of upbeat, bouncy numbers. Tyner's bright chords offset the glum bass melody. The track serves even more explicitly as a gentle come-down by following "The Chase", a driving piece centered around Tyner's quick fingers. He plays his single-note runs lightly, but hammers his chords, maintaining a sense of urgency throughout. The horns stay away on this track, to keep space for Tyner, who lets up enough for Nash to get in some brief, tom-heavy solos.
Tyner wrote two other pieces on Illuminations: the title track and "Angelina". Oddly, the song "Illuminations", which opens the album, doesn't fare as well. It's an enjoyable, uptempo number, but it lacks inventiveness, aside from a few of Nash's better moments. McBride puts down a great line to let his bandmates shine, but the track never really takes off. "Angelina", however, starts slowly and softly with just piano and adds some light cymbals before the other three musicians come in, with Blanchard and Bartz matching on the melody. The main sections of the song stay subdued and build around a lovely melody, but the group suddenly, at Tyner's sliding initiation, swing into Latin-flavored sections, with the horns hitting on the downbeats and piano taking over. Tyner finally gets the melody in his grasp and runs with it before he and the other musicians alternate their turns at the front. At 8:45, the piece lasts a little too long, but "Angelina" has enough intrigue to avoid sounding boring.
While Illuminations has some great moments -- and should grab percussion fans -- it remains a little grounded in jazz's past. Had I been told that the quintet recorded this thirty years ago, I wouldn't have been surprised. While it doesn't cut any edges, the CD does provide a showcase for five talented musicians who know how to play off each other, and it gives McCoy a chance to show off his songwriting and band-leading skills.