[Oog, that title. Oh, well; whatever they decided to call it, this is a feature I wrote on McCoy Tyner for the new - March/April 09 - issue of Jazziz.]
Though he's friendly and witty in conversation, McCoy Tyner's never been known as a garrulous, discursive interview subject. Rather, his reputation is that of a man who speaks with his hands, and it's one he welcomes. "Some people say, when they hear me talk, 'Sit down and play, will you?'" he says with a laugh. "I have an affinity for the piano because I've been playing it so long. It's my other voice. I just love playing; I love using that as a means of expression and communication. I've heard people say, 'This reminds me of something, that song you played' or 'It sounded like you were talking on that ballad,' if I played a ballad solo."
Tyner has drifted along for decades, the admiration he earned during his time in John Coltrane's quartet keeping his record sales high (by jazz standards) and his bookings as steady as he wants them to be. Unfortunately his disinterest in hyping himself has allowed his image to stagnate; he's seen as an entertainer who'll take fans into the past, playing standards all night if that's what they want. The less brightly lit corners of his catalog - the side trips and sonic adventures he's permitted himself - go too frequently unnoticed. But despite his quiet demeanor, Tyner would like to be recognized for his legacy as a serious composer. "I like to compose, I like to play, I like to interject one or two standards, but I prefer writing my own music," he says. "I consider what I've written standards, like 'Passion Dance' and 'Blues on the Corner.' These songs have been around forever, and young guys like to play 'em. But I understand what they mean when they mention standards - George Gershwin or whatever, guys like that."
For listeners seeking a fuller picture of Tyner, his new album is simultaneously high profile and slightly weird. Guitars (Half Note) lives up to its title, featuring Tyner and the rhythm section of Ron Carter and Jack DeJohnette (by themselves a trio most jazz fans would happily pay to hear) joined in the studio by four guitarists - Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot, John Scofield and Derek Trucks - and banjo player Béla Fleck. Tyner has worked with guitarists in the past, of course. Ted Dunbar appeared as part of a sextet on the pianist's final Blue Note album, 1972's Asante, and Tyner's trio backed George Benson on the 1989 live album Round Midnight. Nevertheless, Guitars represents an artistic left turn for the 70-year-old Tyner.
The tracks were chosen by the guests rather than the leader, and they're mostly Tyner originals scattered among a few standards, a pair of improvisations and two Frisell pieces. Among the highlights are a Ribot-led version of "Passion Dance" - which opened the pianist's first post-Coltrane album, 1967's The Real McCoy - and a trancelike take on "Greensleeves," featuring Trucks.
The relative strangeness of hearing Tyner with guitarists is only emphasized when one of those guitarists, Trucks, is a member of the Allman Brothers Band and another, Ribot, is known in rock circles for his work with Tom Waits and Elvis Costello. Ribot admits, "I was surprised but honored to get the call. I went down to a gig and we met, hung out and talked a bit, and I came up with a couple of arrangements...I had come up with some things to try, because that was the concept, that I was supposed to bring in some ideas. But other than that, there was no rehearsal." In addition to "Passion Dance," the quartet with Ribot recorded the standard "500 Miles," as well as two fully improvised duets, one tonal and one atonal.
"That was the surprise of the session, I think, for both me and McCoy," Ribot recalls. "I mean, we did the stuff we planned to do, and that went well enough. But then I thought, you know, my own background is, I play jazz to some extent, I was to some extent trained in it, but what I've been doing for the last 25 years has been different kinds of free improv. I certainly haven't been playing anything like mainstream jazz. So I said, 'Hey, man, let's improvise. Just duo, you know?' And McCoy's a very warm and open-minded guy, and he said, 'Yeah, let's do it.' And we did, and I was very happy with the way it came out. And apparently so was McCoy, because it made the record."
With its melodic head, "Passion Dance" seems like a logical choice to open the album. But the atonal improvisation between Tyner and Ribot is the first thing a listener hears. When asked why he led with that track, Tyner says, "At the time we felt it was a pretty accessible thing, and we had enough material that I felt it would be interesting for whatever people liked. Some people like this, some people like that. I wasn't trying to please any particular segment of the record-buying, jazz-buying audience.
"I wasn't too familiar with Marc," Tyner continues. "I think they gave me one of his CDs, and I said, 'Well, at least we have a variety of concepts on this project.' I think that's the reason why his name was mentioned as a choice, because they thought he would contrast with the rest of the guys that were on the recording."
Each of "the rest of the guys" brings his own personality to the session. John Scofield's tracks are funky and swinging, while Derek Trucks, the player with the least jazz cred of anyone present, does quite well on his waltz-time version of "Greensleeves." Béla Fleck's* contributions tread the line between wackiness and technical brilliance, while Bill Frisell's drift exotically.
Frisell performs on a version of the Tyner original "Contemplation," which swings gently in a manner reminiscent of Grant Greens early 1960s duos with pianist Sonny Clark. Frisell also offers one original composition, "Boubacar," a tribute to deceased Malian guitarist Boubacar Traore, and a version of a Traore piece, "Baba Drame," itself an elegy for one of Traore's former percussionists. Frisell describes Tyner as being "incredibly welcoming" to his ideas, despite the fact that there was zero advance preparation. "It was just like, 'Hello, Mr. Tyner,' and then, bam!" says the guitarist by phone from Philadelphia. In a soft voice, Frisell recalls his nervousness upon entering the studio. "Just walking in and seeing McCoy and Jack [DeJohnette] and Ron [Carter], it was so heavy. It was almost dreamlike."
In some ways, Guitars recalls Tyner's final Blue Note sessions during the late '60s and early '70s. Those albums featured African rhythms, vocalists, harps, string quartets and other unexpected sounds, and the pianist looks back on them fondly. But as the existence of Guitars proves, he also doesn't consider his adventurous days behind him. "I think [people] should expect anything from me," he says merrily. "Whatever I give 'em, take it, 'cause I try things. I still do that."
*Note: in printed piece, this says "Pat Metheny's" for some reason. Whoops!