This all-star collective first came together last year as the Larry Willis All-Stars at New York’s Smoke Jazz Club celebrating the music of McCoy Tyner. The audience reaction and the vibe among each other was so good that they decided to stay together and record an album. All four members of this Jazz supergroup have played and/or recorded during the last half-century and they all have recorded with most of the veterans whose music they are playing on this gorgeous new recording date: Jackie McLean, John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, and Benny Carter.
Gary Bartz opens the set here with Coltrane’s “Impressions”, the excellent composition which appeared on a live recording session at the Village Vanguard from 1961 where McCoy Tyner was involved as well. Sitting in the piano chair in this group is the legendary Larry Willis (you might want to call each member a legend, each one in his 70s now and each having played with just about everyone), on bass is Buster Williams and on drums Al Foster.
The “happy” blues number “Unlce Bubba”, a composition by Gary which had been recorded by McCoy Tyner on his 1984 album “Dimensions” which also featured John Lee on bass and John Blake on violin, is executed blithely and with a certain easygoing feel to it.
The wonderful Tyner original and title track of this album is from the pianist’s 1967 Blue Note LP “The Real McCoy” which was his seventh album in total and the first one he recorded after leaving Coltrane. The tranquility of the song is stretched here to almost 12 minutes and where Joe Henderson played his immensely lyrical lines on the original, Mr. Bartz is topping it by his solo opening in grand style. It’s a beautiful rendition, all dreamy and concise with a very lyrical solo by Mr. Williams.
More bop fare comes in the shape of McLean’s “Capuchin Swing” which was recorded by the famous alto saxophonist for Blue Note in 1960 for an album of the same name and really hearkens back to the good old Rudy Van Gelder epoch with some soulful playing by Gary Bartz. His own “Soulstice” is another swinging bop vehicle and showcases not only the composer here but also Larry Willis with some effervescing playing and Al Foster with a majestic drum solo.
It’s back to the ballads on “Crazy She Calls Me” which has been recorded by a lot of vocalists over the years and Gary literally singing the chorus. He talks in the liner notes about how all players of note (Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Sonny Rollins, Coleman Hawkins) knew the lyrics to the song which I think is really essential and you can tell by the way of his effortless and poignant playing that he belongs to that group as well.
I have always admired Benny Carter‘s “Summer Serenade” (from his album of the same name recorded in 1980 for the Danish Storyville label and featuring the timeless Kenny Drew) and here, Larry Willis steps to the foreground with some lithe and enlivened playing. Simply beautiful before Gary steps in with some more of his impressive playing. Billy Strayhorn‘s “Lotus Blossom”, also recorded by a slew of artists, is getting a groovy complexion here and stays pretty subdued, yet very effective throughout and has Gary (now 74) playing some of his best work to date. And listening to Buster’s bass on this tune is like meditation. The album ends with the standard “I Wish I Knew” where Gary switches to soprano saxophone to get the story across. The song is usually done as a ballad and gets some uplift here in tempo and style. And performance.