by Phil Freeman
This is the final installment of our series looking at every album McCoy Tyner recorded between 1970 and 1979. In case you need to catch up, here’s Part 1; here’s Part 2; here’s Part 3; and here’s Part 4.
Counterpoints: Live in Tokyo was recorded in 1978, but not released until 2004. It features more material from the same performance that was documented on Passion Dance, with Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums. Again, the full trio doesn’t perform throughout; Carter and Williams are only heard on the opening “The Greeting,” where the bassist takes a pleasingly bouncy solo, and the final two numbers, a version of Duke Ellington‘s “Prelude to a Kiss” and a new piece, “Iki Masho (Let’s Go)”. The other two tracks, “Aisha” and “Sama Layuca,” are solo piano pieces. The former is a shimmering ballad that rises to one thundering crescendo after another, only to recede again; the latter is pure pounding force throughout, as though he’s trying to compensate for the absence of the heavy Latin percussion from the studio version by slamming the keys. It’s mildly interesting that even though Counterpoints came out in 2004, it’s only 48 minutes long, like a vinyl LP would be. It raises the question of why Passion Dance wasn’t a double album, since the material here is of the same quality as on the earlier release.
Together was recorded August 31 and September 1, 1978 and released the following year. It features an octet: Freddie Hubbard on trumpet and flugelhorn; Hubert Laws on flute and alto flute; Bennie Maupin on tenor saxophone and bass clarinet; Bobby Hutcherson on vibes and marimba; Stanley Clarke on bass; Jack DeJohnette on drums; and Bill Summers on conga and percussion. The opening “Nubia” adapts Tyner’s frilly modal jam-out style to a heavy blues structure, with occasional big blaring fanfares from the horns. It’s practically headbang-worthy, especially with Clarke’s massive bass sound, which occupies more of the midrange than the low end of the mix. Hubbard’s trumpet solo is explosive, full of upper-register trills and screams. “Bayou Fever” opens with a powerful shuffling beat from DeJohnette, accented by low moans from Maupin’s bass clarinet. When the other horns come in, it becomes a wild, dark journey into the swamp, like an unexpectedly weird interlude on a Dr. John or Leon Russell album. And when it becomes (briefly) a duo between Maupin and a bow-wielding Clarke, it gets even weirder, and that’s before Hutcherson’s vibes come dancing in like skeletons from an old black-and-white cartoon. “One of a Kind” is rip-roaring hard bop with another roof-scraping Hubbard solo; “Ballad for Aisha” is so much more structured than “Aisha,” from Counterpoints, that it’s practically unrecognizable, but of course since this album was released 25 years before that one, this lush studio take was the definitive version. Together is a widescreen, in-your-face album. Everyone is playing hard, and it’s produced with a loud, brash 1970s sound. Even the flute manages to blare, somehow. But it’s more than just a tidal wave of sound; there’s real sensitivity and empathetic interplay here. Even this late in the decade, Tyner was far from running out of creative steam.
Horizon was recorded April 24 and 25, 1979, and released in 1980. It featured Joe Ford on alto and soprano saxophones and flute; George Adams on tenor sax and flute; John Blake on violin; Charles Fambrough on bass; Al Foster on drums; and Guilherme Franco on percussion, bringing Tyner’s most productive and creative decade to a close with a wild and surprising left turn. The thing that separates Horizon from every other McCoy Tyner album, obviously, is the presence of John Blake‘s violin, but until you listen to the album, you really don’t know just how dominant he is. He takes lengthy solos throughout the disc, and they’re ferocious, swooping-and-diving things in the realm of Jean-Luc Ponty or the Mahavishnu Orchestra. On the 12-minute opening title track, he basically takes over completely; the main melody is arranged for piano and violin, and he gets a long solo spot, bolstered by an avalanche of rhythm from Foster and Franco. Fambrough kicks off “Motherland” with a massive bass sound almost like a guimbri; Adams steps into the spotlight with a bicep-flexing, vein-popping tenor saxophone solo, but it’s difficult not to stay focused on the throbbing bass. “One for Honor” is a fast trio piece; Tyner tears up the keys, and Fambrough gets a short but potent solo. The album closes with “Just Feelin'”, a muscular soul jazz tune. Horizon isn’t just a great album on its own terms; it’s also a great capper to an amazingly creative decade’s worth of work.
There’s one more album to deal with, which I’m adding here at the end as a kind of bonus track. In 1976, Blue Note released Cosmos, a double LP containing tunes from two different recording sessions, one from April 4, 1969 and one from July 21, 1970. We’ll skip over that first session, and deal with the second one here. It features Gary Bartz on alto and soprano saxophones, Hubert Laws on flute and alto flute, Andrew White on oboe, Herbie Lewis on bass and Freddie Waits on drums. Only three tunes were recorded, but they were relatively long. “Forbidden Land” runs 13:57, “Asian Lullaby” was 7:27, and “Hope” was 14:17. All the music on Cosmos was experimental, and somewhat hard to classify, so it’s understandable that Blue Note kept it in the vault. The 1969 session featured a string quartet, and as mentioned, this one features oboe. “Forbidden Land” begins with some exotic trills and frills, not that far away from what he was doing on Extensions (recorded five months earlier, and also featuring Bartz), and the oboe, as played here, has a piercing tone that’s almost Middle Eastern, which works really well set atop the typical-for-Tyner modal rhythm. Waits pounds the toms a lot, giving the music a kind of rumbling, tumbling forward momentum. “Asian Lullaby” gives Bartz a hypnotic, mantra-like melody line, but the drums are a little too busy (even before the drum solo), the flute is a little too frantic in the background, and Tyner is playing with way too much power for it to actually serve as any kind of lullaby. “Asian Reverie” might have worked as a title. “Hope” feels, for its first few minutes, like Tyner is returning to the mode of John Coltrane‘s Meditations; it builds up slowly, the reeds crying like mourners. But then the rhythm section starts to jog along, and he settles in for a long piano journey that takes the piece past its halfway mark. The second half of the piece features solos from Bartz and Lewis. All three tracks are good-not-great, and there’s not really a full album’s worth of music here (three tracks, 35 minutes), but it’s worth hearing nonetheless, as a demonstration of just how far out Tyner was willing to go at the time.
That’s the end of our journey through McCoy Tyner‘s 1970s discography. It’s really amazing how much incredible music was being made at that time, and basically slipping beneath the waves. These records sold when they were new, but they’re largely overlooked today except by hardcore jazz fans. I’d love to sit down with Tyner and talk about some of them, but he’s not doing interviews (I’ve asked). Thanks for taking this ride with me.