[28 August 2003]
Everything about this album feels just right. From the initial piano-vibes motif on “Serro Do Mar” to the exquisite reading of “In a Mellow Tone” that rounds off the set, nothing seems false or out of place. Land of Giants, with McCoy Tyner and Bobby Hutcherson in perfect command of the material, is small group jazz at its most eloquent and entertaining. It does lack some of the exploratory drive associated with Tyner’s modernist past, but only the most austere avant-gardist could disapprove of so delightful a session as this one.
McCoy Tyner is, of course, one of the true greats. His contributions to Coltrane’s “My Favourite Things” and “A Love Supreme” remain defining moments and are second to none in terms of influence on post-sixties’ piano styles. Not that they should overshadow his own later achievements, particularly fronting large groups or working with Latin-based material. The energy and intensity of his playing, aligned to a melodic sensibility second to none, make his sound both instantly recognisable and one of the wonders of modern jazz. All of these qualities are on show here, plus as fine a demonstration of “relaxed swing” as you will find outside of a Duke Ellington/Johnny Hodges session.
Hutcherson adds immeasurably to that particular facet of the music. Himself a Modernist of the first order, here operating in “straight-ahead” mode, he brings an urbanity and lightness of touch to each track that makes every phrase lucid and light on its feet. Piano and vibes operate in complete sympathy, whether at pace or in moments of contemplation and calm. It is a heavenly match, born of a lifetime’s experience yet as fresh as the dawning of the day. Critic John Fordham, whose enthusiasm for this quartet’s live performance in London last year was a key factor in this session’s coming to fruition, is not a man given to overstatement. He recognised a special chemistry between the two and awarded that concert a rare five-star accolade. I have no hesitation in doing the same for the resulting album.
Bass player Charnett Moffatt and drummer Eric Harland, though content to leave the majority of solo space to their distinguished lead duo, play their part also. Both are distinctive musicians, Harland a busy but never cluttered percussionist and Moffatt the perfect match of thirties-style swing and modern sophistication. Together they make the ideal rhythm section, supportive but never simply secondary.
Tyner offers seven original compositions. “If I Were a Bell”, “In a Mellow Tone”, and a very moving, solo piano rendition of “For All We Know” complete the repertoire. Some listeners might be surprised as to how firmly “in the tradition” Tyner’s take on these standards turns out to be. To me, they are among the highlights of the set, articulate and infused with a classical dignity. Drawing on a variety of piano styles, a whole jazz heritage is evoked, not archly or self-consciously, but as a living continuum.
For the more modal (and perhaps more familiar) Tyner head straight for “Manalyuca” or “Contemplation”. All the power, grandeur and stateliness that characterises his best-known work are displayed to the full. Elsewhere, blues and Latin themes are never far away. “Back Bay Blues” is suitably funky and flowing, while the aforementioned “Serro Do Mar” has a riff so infectious that it may take you a while to get to track two. Don’t miss “Stepping”, an urgent, uptempo extravaganza that simply motors along. For the more introspective side of the players “December”, a deep, investigative piece with Hutcherson at his most poignant and precise, is outstanding and worth whole catalogues of similarly intentioned but far less sensuous chamber-jazz.
Potential jazz album of the year? Perhaps. Certainly the most flawless. Charges of complacency and easy listening have been raised in some quarters. Ignore them. This is a mature work certainly, but mellow like a vintage wine and showing no signs of decrepitude. Strong tunes, superior playing at individual and ensemble level and an overall coherence that is rare these days all make Land of Giants a thing of joy and a privilege to experience.