Music

McCoy Tyner: Guitars

An overpolite meeting between a great jazz trio and batch of six-string slingers.


McCoy Tyner

Guitars

Contributors: Ron Carter, Jack DeJohnette, Mark Ribot, John Scofield, Derek Trucks, Bela Fleck, Bill Frisell
Label: McCoy Tyner Music
US Release Date: 2008-09-23
UK Release Date: 2008-09-22
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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.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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