Recording of November 2008: Guitars

McCOY TYNER: Guitars
McCoy Tyner, piano; Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot, John Scofield, Derek Trucks, guitars; Béla Fleck, banjo; Ron Carter, bass; Jack DeJohnette, drums
Half Note/McCoy Tyner Music 4537 (CD, DVD). 2008. John Snyder, prod.; Randy Funke, eng. DDD. TT: 74:16
Performance ****½
Sonics ****½

Technically, the title of McCoy Tyner's new album, Guitars, is a misnomer. It should have been called McCoy with Strings, given that four of his five stringed collaborators are guitarists, while the fifth "guitar" is Béla Fleck's banjo. However, the mildly misleading title is pardoned, given the performances that this jazz titan of the keys delivers in what is, for him, a completely new setting. Although he enlists a stalwart rhythm team (old friends Ron Carter on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums), Tyner negotiates these 14 tunes with another chordal instrument for only the second time in his storied career. His first and only other guitar-oriented session was in 1982, when he invited Coltrane-worshipping Carlos Santana to record with him on Looking Out.

Even so, as a concept, Guitars was ripe with the potential to be a train-wreck challenge for Tyner, who didn't have the luxury of settling in with one personality. Instead, he was placed in a recording scheme of having to meet and greet, on the fly, five disparate characters: free-leaning Marc Ribot, mild-mannered Bill Frisell, charged-up and plugged-in John Scofield, studious young blues cat Derek Trucks, and fast-picking Béla Fleck. But against the odds, Tyner rises to the occasion, sounding fresher than on most of his releases since his 1995 Impulse! date, Infinity. (That album marked the first time the pianist recorded with tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker, who revitalized his standard trio sound.)

On Guitars, Tyner is totally engaged by the many different points of view. He listens, responds, comps, and shoots off runs that sound rejuvenated, even in such old standby originals as "Passion Dance," "Slapback Blues," "Blues on the Corner," and "Contemplation." He also gets to stretch stylistically, effortlessly moving from his trademark muscular jazz delivery (forceful left-hand striking and speedy right-hand flourishes) to percussive beats and gentle lyricism on tunes that are blues-infused and African-inflected.

Apparently, an early idea for the album was to surround Tyner with smooth guitar strokers. Producer John Snyder thankfully nixed that in favor of gathering edgier players, which gives the final product a multifaceted sound that begins with Ribot's short duo improvisation with Tyner and concludes with three sublime Frisell-instigated tracks. Because the sessions were largely impromptu, with minimal rehearsal, creative sparks catch flame throughout. The sound quality is top-tier, the mix meticulous. Carter's bass, often buried elsewhere, is featured here with his full array of pace-changing note choices, including his signature full-toned walking lines and whole-note pulsations. Likewise, DeJohnette's drums are rambunctiously present, with crisp cymbal flicks and rapt drum slaps. Tyner's piano sparkles throughout, and the spotlighted guitars pierce the mix.

Ribot brings the most varied package to the show, opening it, in "Improvisation 2," with pointed plinks and sliding blips, all met with Tyner's dashes and klunks in shades of Cecil Taylor. While this is the only real "out" playing on Guitars, it serves as potent notice that what follows will be music that takes Tyner out of his comfort zone. Case in point: the very next track, "Passion Dance," where Ribot electrifies his already thunderous plunge through the tune with a rocking fury further developed by Tyner's power-packed pounding, Carter's glissandoing solo, and DeJohnette's drum rollick.

Scofield's hang with Tyner features two bold thrusts. First is John Coltrane's "Mr. P.C.," which is powered by the guitarist's grooved, energized lines, and then their playful dance through "Blues on the Corner." Béla Fleck brings along two of his own melodic pieces: the exotically tinged "Trade Winds," which Tyner sails through, and the rootsy "Amberjack," which DeJohnette tattoos with his stinging rhythms. Speedy and percussive, Fleck brings an entirely different color to Guitars' palette of stringed sounds, and ups the ante on Tyner's Trane connection by giving a new, folksy jazz spin to the tried-and-tired "My Favorite Things." Fleck owns this tune in his extended solo, while Tyner, in his own solo, sprightly waltzes, as if inspired by hearing it from a new angle.

As Carter's walk pushes "Slapback Blues," Derek Trucks flashes scintillating blues licks that lead to Tyner's low-note dramatic end. Trucks then returns for a slide through "Greensleeves," another unlikely choice that succeeds because Tyner picks up the melody and rides through it with refined elegance and gleeful booming on the keys.

The best is left for last: Frisell invites Tyner to muse on "Contemplation," then fascinates him with two captivating tunes spiritually attuned to the Malian blues sensibility. The first of these tracks is a short, melancholic duet on "Boubacar," the second a mesmerizing caper through Boubacar Traore's "Baba Drame," Tyner sprinkling in a variety of notes to embellish Frisell's almost hypnotic lead. No bold piano solos here, only grace notes.

The companion DVD included in this package captures the recording sessions, during which a different camera was focused on each player. Not only can you watch each perform individually, but there's a special treat: In the "four cameras at once" view, the recording comes alive with visual takes on these musicians' alchemical improvisations.—Dan Ouellette