Students' Starry Night with McCoy Tyner

Rob Hayes
July 22, 2008
McCoy Tyner and student drummer Dan Platzman share a joke during a break.
The students' focus is intense, even at rehearsal.
Trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah '05 brings the high heat.
The Berklee Concert Jazz Orchestra, led by professor Greg Hopkins performs with McCoy Tyner.
Photo by Linsey McDonald
Photo by Ken Franckling
Photo by Rob Hayes
Photo by Kris King

The Montreal International Jazz Festival is something that everyone who loves jazz, and everyone who loves cities, really should see. The members of the Berklee Concert Jazz Orchestragot a very special chance to do that at a meeting of jazz youth and jazz history on July 3, performing with icon McCoy Tyner and guest trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah '05.

I'd been fortunate to help bring the collaborators together, and equally lucky to make the trip with the band as well, acting as the band's road manager and publicist.

The opportunity to play with an artist of this stature, in such a place, comes but rarely, particularly for players at the beginning of their careers. Each and every one of the BCJO members showed appreciation, respect, and ample professionalism, on the bandstand and off. They knew this was rarefied air.

The day before the show, McCoy arrived at rehearsal, and the band applauded. It was like having Mt. Rushmore in the room. He and BCJO leader, professor Greg Hopkins, looked over the music and laughed like a couple of pirates. After only the second tune, McCoy complimented the band. After two hours, rehearsal was called a success, and we dispersed into the Montreal afternoon.

On the following morning, everyone gathered for soundcheck in the beautiful Theatre Jean-Duceppe. There was the usual chaos backstage but you could feel that everyone, from the light rigger to the fourth trumpet, knew what to do. Student musicians Arthur Felluca (alto) and Max Miller-Loran (trumpet) had family there to see the show. I talked with Arthur's folks-it was great to see the support.

This is when the band and fast-rising trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah met for the first time. (Scott aTunde Adjuah had too many professional commitments outside of school to join the BCJO when he was a student, a regret of his, he told me.) Phone conversations with Greg and more than a year of playing various dates with McCoy prepared him well for this challenging music. The tunes and sonics came together, and everyone felt ready to perform.

On the night of the show, there were, of course, butterflies-some of them quite vigorous, as shown by band members' wide eyes and distracted chatter! But once on stage, these young musicians were at home. The BCJO began with two pieces from its standard repertoire: "The Time Has Come, The Walrus Said" by Mike Gibbs '63 and "Seven Plus Five" by Noriaki Mori '07. The capacity crowd responded enthusiastically. And then McCoy Tyner walked out from the wings.

What is it about McCoy Tyner's playing that conjures up titanic forces of nature? Something about the way his left hand's thunderclaps came up against anthemic, visceral deliveries from the right hand defied easy description.

The show was a flat-out triumph, with McCoy alternating between ornamenting and driving the band. Christian, performing sans socks, added a focus and sass that brought the band to another level entirely.

Greg conducted with verve and surprising vertical leaps. His charges navigated the demanding music with its author onstage, one eye on Greg and one on the charts. Chief among some remarkable solos were Melissa Aldana's muscular, lived-in tenor saxophone lead on "No Frills" and drummer Dan Platzman's kit-tilting workout at the end of "Passion Dance."

Following a well-deserved encore, the performers exchanged many hugs and handshakes, and the students lined up at McCoy's dressing room with their backstage passes for him to sign. A genuine warmth radiated between them, and McCoy pronounced himself very happy with the show. Outside, it was a beautiful night, and Montreal practically shone. With the tension gone but the excitement lingering, no one wanted to think about going home.