by Phil Freeman
Pianist McCoy Tyner is one of the most important musicians in modern jazz. He first popped up on some folks’ radar as a member of the Jazztet, a group co-led by flugelhornist Art Farmer and saxophonist Benny Golson, but his career was made in 1960, when he joined John Coltrane‘s group. Though he made a few trio albums under his own name, and did some sideman work here and there, he mostly stayed with Coltrane until 1965, making a string of legendary albums. He finally left when the saxophonist’s music had become so free and so aggressive that Tyner claimed he could no longer hear himself. That can seem hard to believe when listening to his playing, because he can be as torrential and overwhelming as Coltrane was—but, at the same time, he’s capable of extraordinary tenderness and beauty.
The 1970s were inarguably Tyner’s peak as a creative artist under his own banner. Between 1970 and 1979, he recorded 19 albums, only one of which was held back for later release. Most of these were on Milestone, a label that doesn’t get the recognition it deserves these days. They had an incredible roster during that period that included Tyner, Joe Henderson, and Sonny Rollins, among others, and kept the flag flying for high-powered, quality acoustic jazz even during the heyday of fusion. They ought to be every bit as revered as Blue Note, Impulse!, or CTI, but they’re not. This week, we’re going to take a look at every one of McCoy Tyner‘s 1970s albums. Strap in.
Tyner’s first recording session of the 1970s was on February 9, 1970; it was tracked for Blue Note, where his tenure was coming to an end, and held in their vaults for three years—an astonishing decision, considering the personnel and the quality of the music. Extensions features Gary Bartz on alto saxophone, Wayne Shorter on tenor and soprano saxophones, Alice Coltrane on harp, Ron Carter on bass and Elvin Jones on drums. It contains just four longish tracks, two of which are in the 12- to 13-minute range and two are between seven and eight minutes long. The opener, “Message from the Nile,” features a mantra-like horn riff played to sound as much like as Middle Eastern/North African reeds as possible; Bartz’s saxophone sound will loosen your fillings, and Shorter’s soprano is as whiny as it’s ever been. Still, the extremely subtle reverb put in place by producer Duke Pearson and engineer Rudy Van Gelder keep it from becoming too maddening. Carter mostly bounces in place, and Jones stays steady rather than exploding; the real joy, other than Tyner’s high-powered piano soloing, is Coltrane’s harp, which surges forth in the piece’s latter moments, launching the music into a whole other world. She’s absent on “The Wanderer,” which is a more conventional post-bop sprint that builds up to a rattling Jones solo. On “Survival Blues,” which opens with a minute of solo piano, Coltrane is a subtle background presence, and Shorter takes an extremely tough tenor solo; it’s Carter’s minimal, rubber-bandlike solo, though, that’s the real surprise. It’s more like a bass break than a bass solo, since he barely shifts from the primary line he’s been playing, and Jones is heard softly keeping time behind him, waiting for his own turn in the spotlight, which when it comes is explosive. The album ends with the pastoral “His Blessings.” Tyner and Coltrane shimmer past each other in rippling waves of notes as the horns softly murmur and twitter like birds. Jones thunders across his toms from time to time. The last sound we hear is a bowed drone from Carter.
Asante, recorded on September 10, 1970, was similarly held back by Blue Note, and not released until 1974. As its title and cover (featuring a man dancing, surrounded by a circle of onlookers) indicate, it’s heavily influenced by African music. The band includes Andrew White on alto sax, Ted Dunbar on guitar, Buster Williams on bass, Billy Hart on drums, and Mtume on percussion, and Songai Sandra Smith contributes vocals to the first two—of four—tracks. In addition to piano, Tyner plays wood flute here and there. The first and last pieces, “Malika” and “Fulfillment,” are 14 minutes long each; the other two, “Asante” and “Goin’ Home,” are just over six and just under eight, respectively. The first two tracks are a swirling blend of modal jazz, post-A Love Supreme spiritual keening, and Smith’s passionate vocals. “Goin’ Home,” though, starts the second side off with some gritty funk that happens to feature extra percussion (and, at one point, Tyner softly strumming the piano’s strings behind Williams’ bass solo). White’s saxophone and Dunbar’s guitar team up for a melody line straight off a Grover Washington, Jr. date for Kudu, as Williams and Hart roll on, loose but tight. “Fulfillment” is an extended burner with high-speed soloing from White that alternates between manic repetition of short cell-like phrases and extended squawking blowouts, atop a rhythmic bed that skitters and surges. Tyner himself frequently lurks in the background, and when he does come forward, his playing is jagged and harsh. Unlike Extensions, it’s not that hard to understand why Asante was initially shelved; there are some great moments, but the two long pieces are too long and diffuse, and only “Goin’ Home” really makes an impact.
After leaving Blue Note, Tyner signed with Milestone. He’d record for them until 1981, recording 19 albums in 11 years (and three more in the ’90s). His debut for the label was Sahara, recorded in January 1972. It’s an ambitious and exploratory album—in addition to piano, Tyner plays koto on “Valley of Life” and flute and percussion on the 23-minute title piece. He’s joined by Sonny Fortune on alto and soprano saxophones and flute, Calvin Hill on bass, and Alphonse Mouzon on drums. Hill and Mouzon also play reeds and percussion on “Valley of Life” and “Sahara,” and Mouzon also plays trumpet on the latter piece. “A Prayer for My Family” is a solo piece on which Tyner can be heard softly singing along with the piano; his playing is remarkably unfettered and powerful, while also displaying extraordinary technique and control; at times, it predates Cecil Taylor albums like Indent, Silent Tongues and Air Above Mountains. “Valley of Life” is a fascinating piece of world music-ish introspection, with Tyner strumming the koto as his bandmates tootle and softly play percussion around him. The two traditional jazz pieces, “Ebony Queen” and “Rebirth,” are high-energy blowouts, the former melodic and the latter free and hard-charging; Fortune’s alto solo on “Rebirth” reaches Pharoah Sanders-esque heights. The album-side-long title track begins with some Art Ensemble of Chicago-style trumpet and “little instruments,” before Tyner embarks on a sprinting piano workout, his left hand striking the keys so hard it’s surprising they don’t clatter to the floor. Later, as Fortune uncoils a marathon, almost circular-breathing soprano solo, Tyner can be heard on flute and percussion behind him, before sitting back down at the keyboard to slam home heavy chords that keep the reedman from spiraling all the way out into space. The flutes, percussion, and Mouzon’s elephant cries on the trumpet all return during Hill’s bass solo. Sahara is one of Tyner’s best-selling and most critically acclaimed albums, and there’s good reason for that.
Song for My Lady was recorded at two sessions, on September 6 and November 27, 1972, and released in February 1973. Like its predecessor, it features Sonny Fortune, Calvin Hill, and Alphonse Mouzon; on the first and last track, they’re joined by Charles Tolliver on flugelhorn, Michael White on violin, and Mtume on percussion. The opening “Native Song” runs 13 minutes, and the closing “Essence” is 11:20; in between those two epics, we get a version of the standard “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes,” the title track, and a solo piece, “A Silent Tear.” Song for My Lady is a less unfettered album than Sahara; Tyner and the band have found their footing and are now exploring the territory they’ve staked out for themselves. But the actual performances are fantastic. Tyner’s playing is thunderous, though the piano isn’t recorded with anything like the kind of volume or impact it would have live. He sounds okay on “A Silent Tear,” but at too many other times he’s clangy and honky-tonkish, which when coupled with Hill’s rubber-band ’70s bass and Mouzon’s wood-block drum sound is…unfortunate. White’s violin is also quite shrill; while his own Impulse! albums from the ’70s had a nice, lush, Alice Coltrane/Pharoah Sanders feel, here he sounds like Ornette Coleman, scraping away at the strings. The horns are the only instruments really well served here; Fortune is authoritative and declamatory, even on flute, and Tolliver’s flugelhorn is rich and full. Anyway, the music is great, easily overcoming sonic deficiencies with speed and power; “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes,” which Tyner had recorded a dozen years earlier with John Coltrane (that version is on Coltrane’s Sound), is breathtakingly fast and relentless.
That’s it for this installment; come back tomorrow for two live albums, a big band effort, and more!