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Catching a small bit of the past

It can be bittersweet to come across our legends.

As I stood in a packed Mears Park in downtown St. Paul recently, I heard one word repeated often from the main stage of the Twin Cities Jazz Festival: historic. But I left feeling I was seeing a faint glimmer of the past, not something forging ahead into new musical paths.

My fiancee and I were part of a record crowd attending the final night of the festival on June 24 to see pianist McCoy Tyner, one of the last jazz greats of the 1960s.

One thing was evident early: The sound was not great. We arrived a few hours before Tyner’s set to catch an earlier act and had to strain to hear the music.

Tyner’s backing band, led by a talented and lively Joshua Redman, hit the stage at 8:30 p.m. and played almost a half-hour before the 78-year-old Tyner came on stage, walking gingerly with a man helping him to the piano.

A historic night turned into one of more quiet somberness, where I said, “Well, I got to hear and see him play.” Well, I mostly got to hear him when my ears could strain through the quiet sound.

I was at first excited for a few reasons: 1. I’d wanted to go to the Twin Cities Jazz Festival for a few years but just never made it, and 2. I’ve long wanted to see one of the big names of jazz live.

McCoy Tyner at this year’s festival — check and check.

Now Tyner’s body of work is impressive. He was part of John Coltrane’s “classic quartet” with bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones, playing on some of Coltrane’s most famous albums: “My Favorite Things,” “A Love Supreme,” “Ole,” “Africa/Brass” and many more. Plus, he has an impressive career as a sideman outside of Coltrane, and his own solo career is impressive, though he supposedly struggled a few years before hitting his stride on his own after the Coltrane years.

After the 2017 Twin Cities Jazz Festival was announced, the Pioneer Press and Star Tribune didn’t hold back, as both declared Tyner a jazz “legend.” Blue Note calls him “the most influential pianist in jazz of the past 50 years,” along with Bill Evans.

I’ve been a jazz fan for several years now and have been building my jazz record collection. Over time, you start with the big names: John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Charles Mingus and then start tracking their sidemen: Bill Evans, Paul Chambers and Tyner. You pick a solo album by Evans or one where Chambers serves as a side musician.

That’s one beauty of jazz — the interconnectedness. It felt entirely interconnected, like you were always following a maze or connect the dot map.

And as the lines in become fewer and fewer, we find our existing means of entry shrinking, their notes falling too low to hear.