Gerald Cannon: Conjuring Spirits

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Gerald Cannon pays tribute to two former bosses: McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones.

(Photo: Eva Kapanadze)

These days, the list of living musicians who’ve played with any members of John Coltrane’s quintessential quartet, a collective that redefined jazz as we know it, is short. Bassist and composer Gerald Cannon played long-term with not one, but two of these legends: drummer Elvin Jones and pianist McCoy Tyner.

“To be one of the few … that has played with both of those guys for a long period of time … feels really good, first of all,” said Cannon. “And it added to my development and my still-developing way of playing.”

In honor of his unique proximity to Jones and Tyner, and to the indelible imprint they left on his approach to life and music, Cannon released Live At Dizzy’s Club: The Music Of Elvin & McCoy. The live record, which was recorded over two nights in June 2023 at Dizzy’s Club in New York, features Cannon with pianist Dave Kikoski, drummer Lenny White, tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, alto saxophonist Sherman Irby, trumpeter Eddie Henderson and trombonist Steve Turre. Almost all of them played with Tyner, Jones, or both at some point in their careers. With aplomb, the seven-piece band tackles some of the most iconic songs by Jones and Tyner as well as some surprises.

After spending nearly a decade in each of their respective bands, Cannon is a fitting choice to tribute Jones and Tyner. He came to understand their musical approaches and became close enough to call them friends and mentors. To him, they were both “Chief.”

Cannon first heard Elvin Jones at age 13, when his mother gave him the John Coltrane record Africa/Brass. He remembers being struck by Jones’ approach and Reggie Workman’s iconic bass line on “Greensleeves,” which he immediately learned on his electric. Many years later, while studying at Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, Cannon eagerly agreed when a schoolmate invited him to see Jones’ Jazz Machine perform at Chicago’s Jazz Showcase in 1978.

“I had never heard anything like that,” said Cannon. “I was sitting right in front of his bass drum. I remember that. Right in front of it. And I had an afro at the time, and it felt like the sound of his bass drum was blowing my afro back.”

About 20 years later, after Cannon had moved to New York and worked many years with Roy Hargrove, pianist Eric Lewis recommended Cannon fill in on bass for Jones’ upcoming show at the Blue Note. At the end of that week-long stint, Cannon’s membership in Jones’ band was official. He went on to play with the fiery drummer until Jones’ death in 2004, a profound period that Cannon says taught him how to stand on his own two feet as a bassist.

“I got a lot stronger,” Cannon said. “Because you know, with Elvin, I could never use an amp or a monitor. Just a mic. I really learned how to play my instrument with a whole lot more finesse. And how to get a bigger sound out of my bass without overworking. My overall feel of walking and soloing changed when I started playing with Elvin, because I just felt more free.”

As for Tyner, Cannon was first introduced to him by Jones in the early 2000s. After Jones passed away in 2004, Cannon recalls somebody telling him, “‘Hey, man, McCoy’s looking for you.’”

About a week later, Cannon received a call from Tyner’s manager, who asked if he was free for a few dates. That began Cannon’s 13-year career in Tyner’s band — and another life-altering opportunity. From Tyner, Cannon learned about the spiritual connection vital to jazz, and the two frequently connected over their shared love of visual art, which Cannon also does professionally.

“I’m playing at the Blue Note with McCoy Tyner, we were coming down the stairs, getting ready to do our first set,” said Cannon. “I was walking right next to him and he said, ‘Hey, Gerald, they call it art.’ I said, ‘Yes, they do.’ And he said, ‘So, let’s go paint.’ I never forgot that.”

It’s been 20 years since Jones’ death, and four since Tyner’s. Cannon had been contemplating a tribute album to them for years, noting that he waited to allow for a “strong foundation of reflection.” Last year, he felt ready to “paint.”

Cannon settled on a live record and called up Dizzy’s Club inside Jazz At Lincoln Center, a favorite venue of his that’s set up with high-quality recording equipment. From there, he put the band together, choosing musicians who had played with these greats or, in the case of Kikoski, extensively studied them.

“Everyone on the bandstand, outside of Dave Kikoski, they all played with Elvin and McCoy. So they all knew the spirit of those musicians, and I wanted to play with musicians that have felt what I felt,” Cannon said, referring to the experience of being on stage with Tyner and Jones.

Last June, the septet went into their nights at Dizzy’s Club with only one rehearsal. That was all they needed. On Live At Dizzy’s Club, the band plays the repertoire with deep facility, respect and joy. Most importantly, each musician shares their own distinctive voice, just as Jones and Tyner would have wanted.

“When I took a solo, the way Elvin would comp behind my solo, you could feel that he’s really listening to me and playing with me,” Cannon said. “We’re having a conversation. Same with McCoy. You know, they’re really wanting to hear the authentic person that you are.”

Cannon set out to create Live At Dizzy’s Club with that same sense of authenticity at the helm. That’s why he decided on a live record, something he’s never done as a leader, to capture the spontaneity. Sure enough, there is magic.

Throughout — but particularly on the burning opening track, “EJ’s Blues,” and Jones’ quintessential tune “3 Card Molly” — Cannon plays with that nuanced balance of strength and freedom, as the septet cooks with Jones-level propulsive energy. On the Tyner tunes, like the rousing version of “Contemporary Focus” from Tyner’s 1964 recording Today And Tomorrow, and the ballad “Search For Peace,” led by Lovano’s rich melodic interpretation, the band accesses the spiritual depth for which Tyner was known.

One of the most moving songs on the set is the band’s tender rendition of Cannon’s composition “Three Elders,” which Cannon wrote in tribute to Tyner, Jones and another mentor, pianist Larry Willis, and first recorded it on his 2003 debut. On Live At Dizzy’s Club, Henderson and Lovano share the melody, as the rhythm section gently ebbs beneath. After revisiting this early expression of gratitude to his elders, Cannon says the song means more to him than ever now as all three of his elders have passed.

But Cannon still feels them in his music. He felt Tyner’s and Jones’ spirits throughout the recording. Their presence was strongest as Cannon walked with White, who masterfully channels Jones’ tendency toward long beats and polyrhythms, and as he interplayed with Kikoski’s innovative sense of harmony, akin to Tyner’s.

“I really felt the spirit — I mean, I felt it on every solo the horns took — but amongst the rhythm section,” said Cannon. “As a bass player, I was in total heaven.” DB



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