McCoy TynerGuitarsHalf Note Records
It's amazing that the concept of McCoy Tyner recording with a guitarist has never come up before. After all, the legendary piano man has done just about everything else, with and without former employer, saxophonist John Coltrane. Now we have Guitars, which mixes Tyner and a Hall of Fame rhythm section with a truly diverse group of string-driven all-stars. The result is an engrossing chronicle (both musical and visual) of the artist's process.
In many respects, Guitars is a study in fearlessness. Other than the fact that they play stringed instruments, there is little that links the session's five guest players, and this theoretically puts Tyner in a different creative space with each new arrival. Also, while some of the tracks are either written by Tyner or associated with him, all the music was suggested by Tyner's guests. Again in theory, those conditions should give the guest artists the advantage in the session. Unfortunately for the guests, that theory falls to the ground in the face of Tyner's aforementioned rhythm sectionbassist Ron Carter and drummer Jack DeJohnette.
Going up against that trio is like finding yourself in a mixed martial arts match with Iron Man, The Thing, and The Incredible Hulk. And therein lays the fearlessness of the guests. Standing toe to toe with players whose names were burned into musical history long ago (in Derek Trucks' case, before he was even born) has to have been an intoxicating proposition. And it has to be said that the session's overall results are quite stunning, even though the guestsfor the most partbecome simple sidemen at Tyner's party.
John Scofieldwho can (and does) play anything without losing his tonal identityslips into the trio's musical space like a man donning a favorite jacket, ripping through delightfully aggressive takes on Coltrane's "Mr. P.C." and Tyner's "Blues on the Corner." On the other hand, Bill Frisell brings the session closer to his comfort zone on "Boubacar" and "Baba Drame," two Frisell compositions from the meditative disc The Intercontinentals (Nonesuch, 2003). Both tunes have the hypnotic, Zen-like airiness of the original recordings, but Carter's concrete foundation and DeJohnette's ever-busy filling gives the latter tune heft and drama the original never had.
While Scofield and Frisell's cuts are all about collaboration, Marc Ribot and Bela Fleck's respective sections are more about domination. Ribot's alt-jazz snarlings are the polar opposite of the straight-up bebop the trio lays down, which gives Tyner's "Passion Dance" a wild, untamed atmosphere; but on "500 Miles," Ribot's snarl is reduced to a relative whimper, with the piece staying firmly in Tyner's wheelhouse despite Ribot doing the arrangement. Surprisingly, Fleck comes out the worst of the five guests, even though two of his three pieces came from his pen. Despite Fleck's ever-creative voicings, he is consistently plowed under by the three-headed juggernaut on the other side of the studio. And whatever possessed Fleck to attempt "My Favorite Things" using the waltzing arrangement associated with Coltrane's transcendant recording? There's no way anyone can win in that situation, andput simplyFleck doesn't.
Trucks could have fallen into the same trap on "Greensleeves," which features an arrangement similar to the one on Coltrane's Africa/Brass (Impulse, 1961). What saves Trucks is Guitars' quartet setting, leaving the musicians free to explore without the unwieldy horns producer Creed Taylor strapped to the original. Here's where Guitars' DVD shows the listener what might have been: during a rehearsal onstage at the Blue Note, Tyner and Fleck play "My Favorite Things" as a duet, giving the piece a more intimate, textured feel. Guitars already had Tyner playing three duets (two with Ribot, one with Frisell); if "Favorite" had also been recorded in duo form, both Fleck and the CD would have benefited.
The main attraction of the DVD is video of one track by each of the guests, along with the sometimes-friendly, occasionally-contentious "pre-game" machinations and conversations that led up the recordings. (There is also the extremely rare site of the always-dapper Carter actually dressed casually in jeans, a baseball cap, and a coral polo shirt!) The DVD becomes a teaching tool during each recording, when the "Angle" feature offers a choice of six viewing options: a four-way split screen showing all the players; individual shots of each player; and a setting that rotates between all four cameras. The viewer can jump between solos, or concentrate on what his or her favorite player is doing through the entire tune.
Simply watching Tyner's hands (whether he's soloing or not) is an education in itself. If the CD isn't proof enough that he's still one of the best players in the game, the DVD precludes any debate on the matter. A major downside of the video is that none of the performers are mic'd individually, which reduces some conversations to either mumbles or cacophony. An extra feature of Tyner discoursing on music in general is practically unintelligible.) What counts, though, is the music, which comes through loud, clear, and beautifully. Tyner's guests may have gotten more than they bargained for, but Guitars is more than a bargain for anyone who wants to hear (and see) how great jazz is made.
Tracks: Improvisation 2; Passion Dance; 500 Miles; Mr. P.C.; Blues on the Corner; Improvisation 1; Trade Winds; Amberjack; My Favorite Things; Slapback Blues; Greensleeves; Contemplation; Boubacar; Baba Drame.
Personnel: McCoy Tyner: piano; Ron Carter: bass; Jack DeJohnette: drums; Marc Ribot: guitar (1-3, 6); John Scofield: guitar (4, 5); Bela Fleck: banjo (7-9); Derek Trucks: guitar (10, 11); Bill Frisell: guitar (12-14).