by Phil Freeman
This week, we’re exploring the 19 albums McCoy Tyner released between 1970 and 1979, all but two of them on the Milestone label. Here’s Part 1 of our rundown, in case you missed it.
Echoes of a Friend is a solo disc, recorded in Japan on November 11, 1972. It includes two new original compositions, “The Discovery” and “Folks,” but they make up the second side. The first three pieces are all either written by John Coltrane or strongly associated with him—”Naima,” “Promise,” and the standard “My Favorite Things,” which the saxophonist, accompanied by Tyner, memorably stripped down to a vamp he could ride into eternity. With no other instruments to mix, producer Tetsuya Shimoda and engineer Tamaki Bekku can really let the piano swell and blossom, and it does; the relatively tinny, barrelhouse sound of Song for My Lady, also recorded in autumn 1972, is gone here, replaced with an instrument in full roar. The three Coltrane-associated tunes are delivered in a thunderous onslaught, with only a few brief seconds of silence to let the listener catch his/her breath, and the album’s second half commences with the nearly 18-minute “The Discovery.” Without saying so, it’s divided into two movements. The first begins and ends with gong strikes, while the second starts with gentle vibraphone and ends with a massive chord that rings out for nearly 10 full seconds. The final piece, “Folks,” shimmers and ripples, with tons of powerful low-end rumbles from Tyner’s left hand. At times the music on Echoes of a Friend sounds like contemporaneous solo work by Keith Jarrett, but for the most part it’s uniquely Tyner, and it’s a phenomenally energetic performance. He was on a creative hot streak in the early ’70s, and this album is close to essential.
Song of the New World, recorded in April 1973 and released in July of that year, is a slight step down, but still very good. It features a 10-piece big band horn section on three tracks and a 10-piece string section (plus an oboe) on two others, in addition to the core band of flautist Hubert Laws, saxophonist Sonny Fortune, bassist Juini Booth, and drummer Alphonse Mouzon. It opens with a sprint through Mongo Santamaria‘s “Afro Blue” that’s much more widescreen than the version Tyner recorded with Coltrane on 1963’s Live at Birdland. The addition of congas to the ensemble gives Mouzon someone to bounce ideas off, and rocket fuel for his own drumming; the beat is simultaneously skittering and relentless. The second piece, “Little Brother,” is more groove-oriented, a swinging hard bop workout that barely employs the additional horns, mostly leaving them quiet so Tyner can dive-bomb all over the keyboard. Virgil Jones takes a ripping trumpet solo, though. The string arrangements on “The Divine Love” and “Song of the New World” are reminiscent of those on Alice Coltrane albums like World Galaxy and Universal Consciousness; they surge and trill behind Tyner’s hard-driving piano. “Some Day” is a placid ballad mostly notable for Booth’s bass solo, which is excellent. All this music is of extremely high quality, as was to be expected, but the big band and semi-orchestral arrangements don’t really add that much to the tunes, which could just as easily have been performed by Tyner’s road band.
On Enlightenment, recorded in July 1973 and released later that year, we get to hear that live band—with Booth on bass and Mouzon on drums, and Azar Lawrence replacing Sonny Fortune in the saxophone slot—in full cry, at the Montreux Jazz Festival. (Miles Davis‘s septet also played the festival that year, and I think he was listening, because eight months later, when he recorded Dark Magus at Carnegie Hall in March 1974, Lawrence was invited onstage for a live audition, as was guitarist Dominique Gaumont. The latter man passed the test, and is also heard on Get Up With It; Lawrence never played with Davis again. Listen to the most recent Burning Ambulance podcast for Lawrence’s version of all this back-and-forth.) The 70-minute performance, released as a double LP, is divided into roughly three sections. It opens with the three-part “Enlightenment Suite,” two 10-minute spiritual-jazz workouts with a four-minute solo piano passage in the middle. At a few points, Lawrence plays through some kind of electronic device that turns his horn into a wavering, bumblebee-like synth. Two medium-length pieces, “Presence” and “Nebula,” make up the second section of the set. Each showcases Tyner’s increasingly powerful, surprisingly free playing. The final third of the show is a single epic piece, the 24-minute “Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit,” a churning gospel-funk number on which Mouzon drives the band hard, as everyone—Tyner included—digs deep into the blues. Note that this is a performance of entirely new music; none of these tunes show up on any other Tyner album of the era. This was the man and his band at their absolute peak, bringing it live with blistering intensity. When “Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit” ends, the audience positively erupts.
Just two days before his onstage audition for Miles Davis, Azar Lawrence was in the studio with Tyner. The pianist’s next album, Sama Layuca, was recorded March 26-28, 1974; the Dark Magus concert took place on March 30. Sama Layuca features a nine-piece band that includes John Stubblefield on flute and oboe; Gary Bartz on alto sax; Lawrence on tenor and soprano; Bobby Hutcherson on vibes and marimba; Buster Williams on bass; Billy Hart on drums; and Guilherme Franco and Mtume (also a member of the Davis band) on percussion. Several of the compositions, notably the title track and “La Cubaña,” are built on Latin rhythms, but Tyner’s fondness for modal jazz structures remains intact, too. One thing sets Sama Layuca apart from other Tyner albums of this era: no solo track. One of the short pieces—the 3:02 “Above the Rainbow” or the 4:57 “Desert Cry”—would typically be an unaccompanied showcase for the leader, but in the former case, he’s joined by Hutcherson for a gentle, atmospheric duet, and the latter piece is a Middle Eastern-tinged ballad with shimmering chimes, high-pitched reeds, and softly throbbing bass. The album ends with its longest piece, the 16:27 “Paradox,” which rises from a soft piano-vibes-and-percussion intro to a charging post-bop marathon, with Hutcherson adding ringing overtones, and a positively maniacal solo starting at the 8:45 mark. Gary Bartz‘s saxophone sounds heavily reverbed, like he’s playing from the farthest corner of the room, but his solo has a gospelish fervor which Williams and Hart encourage, slowing the beat down to a clap-and-sway groove. There’s a lot going on on Sama Layuca, and the louder you play it, the more you hear.
That’s it for the second part of our journey; come back tomorrow for another incredible live album and some surprisingly experimental studio efforts.