Recent Listening: McCoy Tyner

Tyner.jpgMcCoy Tyner, Guitars (Half-Note). This is one of the most engaging Tyner collaboration projects since he teamed with the late tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker to record Infinity in 1995 and with Wayne Shorter the following year in the session that produced Extensions. For this release, the pianist set up in a studio with stalwart rhythm companions, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Jack DeJohnette. He brought in four guitarists — John Scofield, Bill Frisell, Derek Trucks, Mark Ribot — and Bela Fleck, a banjoist with the fluency of a guitarist. Each of the string artists played two or three pieces with Tyner, Carter and DeJohnette. The CD is accompanied by a DVD that provides fascinating views of this music being prepared and recorded.

Although the pairing of chording instruments presents plenty of opportunities for clashes, there are no fatal collisions here. Some of these meetings are more rewarding than others, but each is interesting, at the very least. An air of inquisitive camaraderie hangs over all of the sessions. Scofield, who has a mainstream history aligned with Tyner’s, seems most at home. Perhaps he was least intimated by the heavyweight rhythm section. His headlong linear improvisations and hurdy-gurdy sound work beautifully in Tyner’s “Blues on the Corner” and in “Mr. P.C.,” a staple of John Coltrane’s book when Tyner was Coltrane’s pianist. In addition to Tyner’s customary large helpings of bounding chords, his own work throughout has passages of the kind of single-note lines that were important to the success of his great Impulse! and Blue Note albums of the 1960s. In his solo on “Mr. P.C.,” Carter reminds us that in the post-Scott LaFaro era when bassists aspire to the facility of guitarists, a good old-fashioned walking bass solo executed by a master is among the deepest satisfactions in jazz.

The most daring pieces on the album are two free improvisations in duo by Tyner and the adventurous session guitarist Marc Ribot. Ribot is heavily electronic on both, irritatingly so on “Improvisation 2” but achieving on “Improvisation 1,” among other effects, the soothing sound and feeling of a cello. He is a powerhouse on “Passion Dance,” allowing little contrast with Tyner’s equally dense and commanding piano. Ribot employs restrained Wes Montgomery octave chords on “500 Miles” and generally lays back in his solo following a reflective one by Tyner, but can’t resist including a few self-conscious wa-wa licks.

Fleck sounds at home with Tyner, and Tyner with him on the banjoist’s “Trade Winds” and “Amberjack” and, notably, on “My Favorite Things.” On the latter, Fleck solos with so much dexterity, imagination and hip manipulation of interior time that it almost makes me want to swear off ever telling another banjo joke. With the swing of his jaunty three-four patterns, DeJohnette is superb on this track. The slide guitarist Derek Trucks evokes country music and urban blues in Tyner’s “Slapback Blues” and in Henry VIII’s “Greensleeves,” which adheres to Coltrane’s general approach and in which Tyner finds freshness despite having played it for four decades.

Bill Frisell’s relatively delicate approach brings the intensity down a notch, but his guitar is in sonic, psychic and musical balance with the rhythm section. His piece “Boubacar” melds into a mesmerizing treatment of “Baba Drame” by the Mali singer, composer and guitarist Boubacar Traoré so that the two pieces comprise an entrancing tribute to Traoré. On Tyner’s “Contemplation,” the third waltz of the album, Frisell commands attention with his quiet assurance and the logic of his lines. Carter has a particularly thoughtful and easy-going solo on this piece. The DVD — all three hours of it — gives viewers a choice of four angles from which to watch the music being made. That is an innovation of John Snyder, who produced the sessions and wrote liner notes of rare honesty and frankness. A sample:

When Marc suggested that he would overdub a solo, Ron put down his instrument, walked over to him, towering, and asked somewhat humorlessly, “What school did YOU go to man? This is CREATIVE music. We don’t do that.

Unusual notes. Unusual album.

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  1. Larry Peterson says

    Doug – McCoy’s Extensions album has been one of my favorites since 1970, when its great cover took full advantage of the 12″-LP record sleeve.