by Phil Freeman
On August 31 and September 1, 1974, Tyner and his road band—saxophonist Azar Lawrence, bassist Juini Booth, drummer Wilby Fletcher, and percussionist Guilherme Franco—played at San Francisco’s Keystone Korner. The gigs were recorded, and the highlights were released on the pianist’s second double live album in as many years, Atlantis. Like 1974’s Enlightenment, it can be a lot to take in; the bandmembers are soloing ferociously, particularly Lawrence, who’s deep into a post-Coltrane calling-the-spirits zone. Fletcher is a hard-hitting, almost rock-like drummer, and Franco matches his energy level, throwing a constant clatter at him like he’s marching in a Carnival parade in Brazil. Booth’s extended solo on the 18-minute, album-opening title track is positively booming, and Tyner, of course, is tearing up the keyboard as always, spinning out long, elaborate lines while maintaining a serious hard bop groove at the same time. In addition to four Tyner originals—I love the fact that he was using live gigs to premiere new material—Atlantis features versions of Duke Ellington‘s “In a Sentimental Mood” and the standard “My One and Only Love.” The former is a wild, rippling solo performance that heads into Cecil Taylor territory, almost sounding like Tyner’s got four hands at times.
Tyner’s next album, 1975’s Trident, was his first trio set since 1964’s McCoy Tyner Plays Ellington, and that album featured two Latin percussionists, Willie Rodriguez and Johnny Pacheco, on four of its seven tracks. Trident is all trio, and features the return of the rhythm section from 1967’s The Real McCoy and 1970’s Extensions, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Elvin Jones. But Tyner can’t help throwing some weirdness into the mix: in addition to piano, he plays harpsichord and celeste. Only half the pieces are new; the group also tackles Antônio Carlos Jobim‘s “Once I Loved,” John Coltrane‘s “Impressions,” and Thelonious Monk‘s “Ruby My Dear.” The moments when Tyner plays harpsichord are fantastic, particularly on the album’s first track, “Celestial Chant,” because he doesn’t try for a baroque classical feel. Instead, he sounds like a ’60s garage psych rocker. He pulls a similar trick with the celeste to kick off “Once I Loved,” before allowing the bouncing bossa nova groove to draw him back to the piano. Hearing Tyner play a Monk composition is inherently fascinating, because I can think of few pianists with less in common. Monk’s deliberately clunky, off-time approach to the keyboard is almost the opposite of Tyner’s linear, high-energy, even frilly style. But Tyner clearly loves Monk’s music—otherwise he wouldn’t have recorded the piece—and it does wind up bringing something out of him. It’s well worth hearing, as is Trident as a whole.
In January 1976, Tyner made Fly with the Wind. The primary band included Hubert Laws on flute and alto flute, Ron Carter on bass again, and Billy Cobham on drums, but that core ensemble was augmented by 10 string players, a piccolo player, an oboe player, and a harpist. This could have been a pleasantly drifting dinner music album, except for one factor: Cobham. The Panamanian-American drummer, well known for his work with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, on the Carlos Santana/John McLaughlin album Love Devotion Surrender (and its subsequent tour), and as a solo bandleader, is an absolute monster behind the kit, blending military precision with blinding speed and a positively assaultive sense of swing. His barrages—there’s no better word—of percussion drive Tyner to ecstatic heights, especially since there’s no saxophonist to fight him for time in the spotlight. The title track is eight and a half minutes long, and ends with a fade; this is music that feels like it’ll sweep over you like a tsunami and just never stop. The strings are as big a part of that as Cobham’s relentlessness; when they come in, they surge like something off a Barry White 12″, adding a lush shimmer to already over-the-top tunes.
Seven months later, in August 1976, Tyner was back in the studio with an entirely different band to make Focal Point. This time, he was joined by three saxophonists: Gary Bartz on alto and soprano (and clarinet), Ron Bridgewater on tenor and soprano, and Joe Ford on alto and soprano (and flute). The rhythm section was Charles Fambrough on bass and Eric Gravatt on drums, with Guilherme Franco on percussion. Gravatt is an under-recognized drummer; he was in Weather Report early on, and played on Eddie Henderson‘s Inside Out, Joe Henderson‘s Canyon Lady, and Julian Priester‘s Love, Love, before leaving the music industry to become, of all things, a prison guard. But his work here is terrific, especially the way he makes the toms sound like plastic buckets. No, seriously, that’s a good thing in context. On the aptly titled “Mode for Dulcimer,” Tyner plays the dulcimer, getting a hillbilly twang out of it that’s fantastic. When it becomes a conventional piano-horns-and-rhythm piece like so many others he’s recorded, though… Still, Gravatt’s bucket drums and Franco’s tablas keep things exciting.
Come back tomorrow for two different trios, two live albums, and a session with singers.