The music of Burt Bacharach and the playing of pianist McCoy Tyner made for an uneasy match Saturday at Segerstrom Hall in the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa. Despite the best efforts of Tyner and arranger John Clayton, who conducted the 72-piece orchestra behind the pianist, the marriage just wasn’t harmonious.
Maybe its shotgun nature was at fault. Tyner was encouraged in the original recording project, last year’s symphonic debacle “Close to You,” by his then-label’s producer, Tommy LiPuma, the same man who encouraged Miles Davis to explore hip-hop. The match of Bacharach’s sugary lyricism and Tyner’s persistent attack and harmonic depth seemed impossible from the start.
Arranger Clayton certainly can’t be faulted. His well-crafted refashioning of Bacharach’s music for Tyner and orchestra, filled with subtle mood and harmonic twists, often bore little resemblance to the originals warbled by Dionne Warwick and others.
Among all the sensuous, Sibelius-influenced orchestration and sweeping Bernard Hermann moodiness he wrote into the pieces, Clayton left suitable room for interludes in which Tyner’s trio sought to assert itself.
But these moments seemed too brief, too constrained to let Tyner do what he does best: develop a song in his own image. Proof of his talent in that direction came in the evening’s first half when Tyner’s trio, without the orchestra, turned the standard “I Should Care” into a multifaceted marvel of feeling and expression.
Ultimately, Tyner’s talents seemed wasted on the Bacharach program, especially in comparison with his trio work. While Clayton’s fascinating arrangements satisfied on their own, often turning sugar into substantial fare, Tyner’s participation was little more than a sprinkling of salt on something already heavily seasoned.
The arrangements were best when they strayed far afield of the original, as happened in “Alfie,” with its Gil Evans-influenced harmonics. But Clayton’s imprint could go only so far on “Close to You,” in which his clever orchestration was frequently defeated by the song’s overly familiar melody.
More revealing of the pianist’s strengths was the concert’s opening section in which Tyner, with bassist Avery Sharpe and drummer Aaron Scott, both of whom have worked with Tyner throughout this decade, gave detailed explorations of “I Should Care” and a trio of Tyner originals. Here were all the invigorating characteristics of Tyner’s playing--the streaming lines, dense harmonics and dramatic sense of dynamics.
Sharpe and Scott were impressive in their own right. The three unearthed Tyner’s “Peresina,” a tune he first recorded 30 years ago with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, trumpeter Woody Shaw, bassist Ron Carter and others. The melody’s satin smoothness evolved with modern sleekness and touches of contemporary funk.
“I Should Care” was the evening’s high point, as Tyner explored a number of rhythms and levels of emotion, alternating between swing and stride, reserve and daring. It was, as Clayton said later, introducing Tyner in the show’s second half, “very powerful and very sensitive.”
A slight muddling of the piano’s sound during the trio performance, something due no doubt to the cavernous acoustics of Segerstrom Hall, brought some distance to the performance (especially when compared with the sound in smaller Founders Hall), but the balance and clarity seemed sharper in the second half with the orchestra.
During the evening’s last number, a persistent bout of static coming through the amplification obscured what would have otherwise been a triumphant moment during Tyner’s performance.