NO PIANIST has developed a more distinctive and influential sound in jazz over N the past 20 years than McCoy Tyner, who will be appearing at Blues Alley this week. After spending the better part of the last decade recording for Milestone Records -- during which time any boldly percussive passage played by a jazz pianist was likely to be described as "Tyneresque," a true indication of his impact on the music -- Tyner has moved on to Columbia Records.
His debut album on that label is called "La Leyenda De La Hora" ("The Legend of the Hour"), (Columbia FC 37375). As the title suggests, the record explores the pianist's interest in Afro-Cuban music, an area which apparently has long fascinated him, though his previous recordings have only touched it.
The subject matter isn't all that sets Tyner's new release apart from those he's made in the past. For one thing, he produced the album himself -- his longtime association with Orrin Keepnews is apparently a thing of the past. For another, he's working with several musicians who record for Columbia, among them Hubert Laws, Paquito K' Rivera and Tyner's frequent accompanist, Bobby Hutcherson. The arrangement may smack of corporate nepotism, but the results are rewarding for both the pianist and his session-mates. Along with tenor saxophonist Chico Freeman, trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, bassist Avery Sharpe and the relentlessly inventive percussionists Ignacio Beroa and Daniel Ponce, Tyner has produced a wonderfully fresh and vibrant album of jazz.
"La Vida Feliz" ("The Happy Life") immediately establishes a festive air. Tyner's brief vamp is picked up by his bassist and then embellished in turn by Hutcherson and Belgrave. Laws' flute rises softly and Hutcherson's buoyant solo on vibes follows suit. Even Tyner seems uncharacteristically subdued at times, his playing marked by cascading figures that culminate in delicate trills. Chico Freeman's chorus, however, burns brightly against the shifting palette of colors devised by drummer Berroa.
"Ja'Cara" is a lovely serenade made all the more appealing by the string section, which discreetly enhances Tyner's insinuating melody. "La Habana Sol" ("The Havana Sun") is a fiery Afro-Cuban workout for everyone involved, particularly Tyner, who's at his most assertive on this track, and Paquito D'Rivera, who transforms the descending theme into a blistering solo all his own. (D'Rivera will be at Blues Alley Oct. 7-8.)
Tyner's Latin holiday concludes with "La Busca" ("The Search"), which again employs an ostinato, this one in 5/4 time. Though the strings heard in unison with the horns on this selection seem superfluous -- a colorful embellishment at best -- the arrangment is redeemed by the way Hubert Laws' flute hovers gently above the recurring bass line and D'Rivera threads his way through it.
Oddly enough, this piece is prefaced by "Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit," an expansive blues first recorded by Tyner in 1973. What it's doing here is anyone's guess; thematically, it has little in common with the balance of the album, but it clearly suits all of the musicians. The blues builds considerable momentum, especially during Tyner's half-dozen choruses, and features a wonderful stuttering, double-time bass solo by Avery Sharpe.
The early '70s provide the focus for a new Tyner retrospective entitled "Reflections" (Milestone M47062). A two-record set, this album goes a long way in documenting Tyner's personal renaissance from 1972 to 1975, a span which reversed the pianist's fallow post-Coltrane years.
It's hardly a coincidence that one of the earliest tracks included on this album is entitled "Rebirth." Tyner rips into the piece with the same explosive, exhausting force that made his work with the Coltrane Quartet such a powerful listening experience. As on "Ebony Queen," an earlier example of Tyner's use of an African motif, he's spurred on by two equally tumultuous performances by saxophonist Sonny Fortune and drummer Alphonse Mouzon, neither of whom has ever been heard to better advantage.
Two of Coltrane's best-known pieces follow: a lush yet not quite tranquil reading of "Naima," one of two beautiful solo efforts included on the record, and "Impressions," which reunited Tyner with the surging rhythms of Elvin Jones. Bassist Ron Carter holds his own throughout "Impressions" and manages to vent a good deal of the heat created by Tyner and Jones during a reflective solo which begins to draw the tune to a close.
What remains is representative of Tyner's varied and often ambitious recordings for Milestone. In addition to the solo pieces, the selections range from the swirling fantasia Tyner creates with just the help of Bobby Hutcherson on "Above the Rainbow" to a fully orchestrated version of the Coltrane workhorse, "Afro Blue." Even the more informal arrangements, particularly the casual trio recording Thelonious Monk's "Ruby, My Dear," are of more than just passing interest. This is a solid summary of Tyner's early milestone years. One can only hope that Columbia will be able to release a similarly impressive retrospective 10 years hence.