Jazz Giant McCoy Tyner

December 1, 2008

IMAGINE ONE DAY YOU GET THE CALL TO PLAY on a record with a pianist who not only inspired you as a budding musician, but also changed the shape of the very music you play. Then just for fun, throw in a rhythm section of almost equal stature. Well, that’s exactly what happened to four of today’s most distinctive guitarists, and they found no imagination necessary. When jazz giant McCoy Tyner was casting about for a concept for his next album, his management suggested that he add strings. Not violins and cellos, but some well-known guitarists and a banjo player. The short list came down to John Scofield, Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot, Derek Trucks, and Béla Fleck—all of which appear on Guitars [Half Note]. There was no long list.

“They didn’t suggest anybody that they thought I would reject,” says Tyner. “Scofield had done some recording with me before, and though I didn’t really know Bill Frisell that well, I was very impressed with his work. And I liked the fact that all four of the guitarists had their own concepts.”

That Tyner would be taken with the fact that each musician evidenced his own instrumental voice is not surprising. It was the Philadelphia-born pianist’s own unique style that helped him redraw the face of jazz in the ’60s with the celebrated John Coltrane Quartet, and through the following decade with his own bands. The world had never before heard a jazz pianist attack his instrument with such physical power, spewing dense chord clusters in place of standard harmony, or even typical re-harmonization.

Guitars exhibits Tyner’s signature sound in various contexts. The pianist provides solid underpinnings for several of Frisell’s floating tunes, launches fearlessly into freely improvised duets with Ribot, intersects with Scofield’s angular lines, and intertwines with Trucks’ vocal-like slide—managing to adapt to each guitarist’s style without ever losing his own unmistakable voice. Add two more forgers of jazz history—bassist Ron Carter and drummer Jack DeJohnette—and you have a momentous meeting of elders and acolytes.

“The first time I heard Tyner live was in 1971, playing with Sonny Fortune and Alphonse Mouzon,” says Frisell. “The history of the music was being written, and it was like your brains were being blown out of your skull. Every time you heard the group they were in uncharted territory. You were hearing something that you didn’t have any reference point for.”

Trucks found this same intensity in Tyner’s recorded work with Coltrane. “Everybody in Coltrane’s band had multiple shotguns pointed at everybody else’s face,” he laughs. “There was just something so relentless and edge-of-the-earth about it. When my band approaches certain tunes, that is what we are trying to do.”

Scofield explains the breadth of Tyner’s effect: “He influenced all of the piano players of my generation, and they in turn affected me and impacted my direction. I can’t imagine jazz piano without Tyner’s contribution.”

What exactly was so revolutionary about Tyner’s approach to music? “He would go away from the basic harmony, but in such a powerful way that there was no question about it,” explains Frisell. “He just developed his own language. The most important thing was the inspiration in discovering that it was possible to find your own way of doing things. For me, that is the part of jazz, or music in general, that you strive for. You take what’s around you and try to find your own way.”

Tyner helped foment a modal revolution— one that often differs from the modality of blues. “A lot of the modal stuff we do with my group comes directly out of the template that the Coltrane quartet created,” says Trucks. “There is Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, which is the first great modal record. Then there is the way the Coltrane quartet approached tunes such as ‘Greensleeves’ [played by Trucks on Guitars] and ‘My Favorite Things,’ which has been a huge influence on the instrumental and improvisational stuff my group does. There is a big difference between modal blues, where you pretty much stay within one scale, and the modality of the Coltrane quartet, where you have infinite freedom. You can shift a tune like ‘Impressions’ from a straight minor to all these Indian-inflected scales. You can go anywhere you want to go if the bass player and the keyboard player are listening carefully enough to follow you. There is a lot of freedom—but also a lot of ear training—that goes along with playing in that realm.”

Ribot expands. “His ideas of modal playing, his idea of voicing chords in fourths—a lot of things he did just became part of the language of jazz, so it influenced me and everybody else. Inside a mode, you don’t have a dominant seventh chord that implies the key you are in, so the root is less fixed. With [Ribot’s band] the Lounge Lizards, rather than playing on regular streams of chord changes, there were long stretches of one chord to deal with—either a one-chord vamp or an atonal situation. I probably wasn’t thinking it consciously at that time, but I certainly drew on McCoy’s ideas of what to do in that situation. He developed a way of dealing with these longer stretches of time in one key. One thing he did that was very interesting was creating a much slower concept of a dramatic arc.”

Ribot explains that vamping on a single chord isn’t like playing on a blues or jazz standard, where each new chorus gives you a springboard that launches you into the next part of the solo. Citing Coltrane’s modal extravaganza, “Ascension,” he says, “Where is the chorus? It requires a whole different set of devices to build the tension. McCoy works with melodic motifs. He plays with an idea and has the space to play with it in. Great bebop players were also using motifs, but something about the free jazz setting allowed him to pursue those ideas, well, more freely.”

Ribot was the only one to engage in free improvisation with the pianist. “I brought some material [“500 Miles” and “Passion Dance”] and it went pretty well, but I was trying to move closer to McCoy’s territory, and frankly, I have a limited ability to do that,” he says. “If I am a jazz player, it is in a different sense and through a different path than he has taken. At the same time, I recognized that in addition to being a great musician, McCoy is a great improviser. So I suggested that we improvise in an intimate setting with just guitar and piano. I didn’t understand at the time that McCoy hadn’t done free improvising in years. But he felt the same thing—let’s do it.

“I wouldn’t say that McCoy and I came to improvising with a completely identical understanding of what that means, but there was enough overlap in language that I felt we could communicate. Of the two resulting tracks—“Improvisation 1” and “Improvisation 2”—Ribot says, “We just started, and the pieces seemed to come to a conclusion at a certain point. It is hard to edit improvisations. When you start to take out what you think are the boring parts, the parts you thought were the exciting parts aren’t exciting anymore.”

Frisell brought two of his own compositions, both featuring African themes. “Baba Drame” and “Boubacar” reference Tyner’s often African-inflected music, and serve as tributes to the late Coltrane drummer Elvin Jones. “Baba Drame was Boubacar Traoré’s drummer who had died,” he explains. Like the other guests, Frisell also brought a tune associated with his host, “Contemplation.”

“Ron Carter was on the original record where they played ‘Contemplation,’” says Frisell. “Luckily, I knew Ron and Jack Dejohnette, as it would have been too much if it had been my first time playing with all three of those guys. I think I would have had some weird seizure and just melted down or something.”

Ribot found that playing with these jazz icons influenced his approach to the more standard tunes. “The first jazz record I bought when I was 11 had Ron Carter on it. Jazz was a large part of my training, so the first temptation was to do ‘that thing,’ and do it correctly. But I realized quite early in the sessions that that would be a mistake,” he laughs. “It’s like if you arranged a touch football game with the Green Bay Packers, you might get hurt. I realized that I should just do what I do and hope it is cool.”

Derek Trucks relates how he dealt with the potentially intimidating session. “You have Ron Carter and Jack DeJohnette, who are legends individually, and with McCoy in the room it is a generation deeper. I felt like I had my hands tied a little bit because I was playing through a really tiny amp, which was in a different room. I tend to not like recording just hearing myself through headphones, but you have to let go and realize that this is a completely different realm. You are playing with acoustic piano and upright bass. Also, anytime you are playing with musicians that you have never played a note with before, the first 20 to 30 percent is just the feeling-out process, learning how people phrase things. And that’s often the beauty of it. Sometimes you get the most inspired moments when you first make those connections, because you get thrown into the deep end and you either sink or swim.”

Scofield explains that the instrumental lineup of Guitars is not the most common in jazz. “Piano and guitar isn’t always the easiest musical pairing because they’re both percussive and similar in timbre,” he says. “But McCoy makes it smooth. He’s one of the bests compers of all time.”

“In my own groups, I don’t play with piano players for selfish reasons,” says Frisell. “I want to have all that harmonic space for myself. But with McCoy I was thinking more that I was supposed to be the melodic voice. Your antennae go out and you just listen and play what you think is right. I wouldn’t play as much chordal stuff when he is there as I would if I were in a trio. Also, he’s the master— I want to hear what he will put in there. He is known for this power, intensity, and density but he is also super sensitive—he hears everything.”

Tyner considers deep listening to be the key when piano and guitar meet. “When I was with John Coltrane, he hired Wes Montgomery for a while and I enjoyed that,” he says. “Wes had big ears. He wasn’t the kind of guy who went to music school. He didn’t have to. It was a natural thing. He could hear anything. Whomever I am playing with, we have to come together. That means listening and paying attention to the person you are playing with, and hopefully trying to complement them. Consequently, they will listen to you. If you show that kind of respect, something beautiful will come out.”

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