Let’s get this out of the way up front: McCoy Tyner is a crucial pianist and a legend. His contribution to the language of modern jazz piano is second to none. I dig McCoy Tyner.
But here is a new McCoy Tyner album that is a strange kind of yawner. It’s a gimmick record and a rehash record all at once. The Tyner legend isn’t harmed by these 14 tunes, but neither is there anything truly interesting here.
Here’s the gimmick: McCoy Tyner Plays with Guitarists! For the First Time!
First, that’s not exactly true. Tyner recorded with guitarist John Abercrombie in 1980. Second, there’s a reason the opportunity has been rare. The conception just feels off. Tyner at his best is a powerful pianist, one famously linked to the most colossal saxophonist in jazz, John Coltrane. To make a guitar big enough for Tyner is to amplify it like mad — not Tyner’s style.
The result on Guitars, then, is a record that is consistently off-kilter. Though Tyner is paired with five different musicians — Marc Ribot, John Scofield, Bill Frisell, Derek Trucks, and banjoist Bela Fleck — the results are fairly similar: awkward reheatings of music it seems we’ve heard before. Mostly, it’s nicey-nice. Yawn. (Plus it comes with a DVD taken during sessions, notable mainly for letting you eavesdrop on some studio chatter that makes you feel like you could probably hang out with these cats if you just had a good story about your amp.)
Still, let’s take the record one guest at a time. The most promising and strangest pairing is surely with downtown player Ribot. Not a fluid traditional jazz player, Ribot sounds like an awkward turtle on the old Tyner tune, “Passion Dance”. On the pianist’s old records, “Passion Dance” is a powerful track, so Ribot tries to push further in that direction, under-girding Tyner’s melody with a guttural, punk-ish accompaniment. But it sounds all wrong, to the point that it’s not clear whether Ribot is playing in the right key. On his solo, Ribot sounds not wrong but actually timid. And that’s a challenge — to sound both too weird and too timid at once.
The well-known producer in charge of this session, John Snyder, seems all too aware of this weirdness in his liner notes. He talks about bassist Ron Carter hazing Ribot, to the point that Ribot suggests a string of duets just to get Carter out of the room. The result is the freshest stuff on the album — a bit abrasive and not much like anything that Tyner has done before — but it also serves to remind how same-y the rest of the material really is.
For instance, there is John Scofield playing “Mr. P.C.” and “Blues on the Corner”, both tunes that Tyner has played and recorded countless times. Scofield’s trademark compressed tone, so tasty with Medeski, Martin and Wood, seems like a mere shadow walking with a rhythm section as heavy as Tyner, Carter, and Jack DeJohnette. Sco’s licks and snaky bop rhythms mesh well, but the sound is nothing majestic.
Sound and attack are also the issues with the trio’s pairing with Bela Fleck. I don’t mean to be banjo-phobic, but this is just a mismatch. Fleck sounds slight compared to this trio, and his attack and rhythm seems square, as if he is always playing the same scalar run in between snatches of melody. This is most plain on “My Favorite Things”, where the group ventures straight into the heart of one of the greatest records in jazz history — John Coltrane’s arrangement of “Favorite Things” with Tyner on piano — and comes away sounding like an imitation of an imitation, cubed. The thrill of the original and the power of Coltrane’s many live versions are here reduced to a faint pastel sketch.
The disc does, however, save the best for last. Derek Trucks is no jazz player, but he uses this to his advantage. He chooses to interact with the trio on Tyner’s “Slapback Blues”, where he can bring his stinging slide guitar to the heart of the matter. “Greensleeves” is way too polite, however (and mildly evokes ‘Trane again, always a mistake), and frankly you just want Trucks to turn it up. All these string players so far have been too polite to match the trio or too poorly matched to make the whole seem fluid and swinging. If you’ve felt that McCoy Tyner’s recent records have lacked his earthy power, then the timidity of these collaborations simply compounds the problem.
The finest — and most balanced — material comes from the collaboration with Bill Frisell. Perhaps this is because Frisell is the guitarist here with the plainest sense of his own style. Even when he is playing Tyner’s own “Contemplation”, Frisell is absolutely himself. He plays without the full battery of pedal effects that sometimes define him, but he still manages to phrase with behind-the-beat legato, improvising with a gorgeous architecture in the middle register. The brief Frisell original “Boubacar” is a duet with Tyner, and it reveals the Ribot duets to be more like lucky accidents. The final track, “Baba Drame”, again forces Tyner to play more on Frisell’s turf, a one-chord exercise in texture that becomes a polyrhythmic jam.
You wonder if a full-alum collaboration between Tyner and Frisell might not have been the bolder and more successful project for McCoy Tyner at this stage in his historic career. It’s not that you want to begrudge the man his status as a jazz icon, but hearing “Passion Dance” and “Blues on the Corner” yet again, but with a new gimmicky twist, is not helping the music along. There is, in fact, plenty of fine playing on Guitars, particularly from the redoubtable drummer DeJohnette, but too much of this music is recycled greatness — music that dates back 30 or even 45 years.
Of course, McCoy Tyner no longer has anything to prove. But it would have been nice if Tyner, or his producer Snyder, had done more to dare the guitarists on this date to prove themselves daring and authentic. That’s what Tyner did in his hey-day, but those albums were not designed to be polite affairs. Guitars is perfectly polite, and that’s a shame.