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McCoy Tyner : Quartet

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McCoy Tyner

In 1973, when he was 34, McCoy Tyner played “Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit” at the Montreux Jazz Festival. It appeared on a Milestone double LP called Enlightenment. Actually, he didn’t so much play it as unleash it. The performance was among the most engulfing 25 minutes in 1970s jazz. You could drown in the flood of it.

It’s a bold move for a 68-year-old artist to revisit a piece like “Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit,” so dependent on musical muscle and torque. On his new album, Quartet, Tyner gives the song a whole new complex, dynamic identity.

He doesn’t do it alone. Tyner has never led a stronger band than this one, with Joe Lovano, Christian McBride and Jeff “Tain” Watts. There are four other Tyner originals from early decades of his career: “Passion Dance,” “Blues on the Corner,” “Search for Peace” and “Sama Lucaya” are also rendered with persuasive force and transformed.

It is paradoxical that tenor saxophonist Lovano, one of the preeminent bandleaders in jazz, is even better as a sideman. Freed of the responsibility to set direction here, he spills his guts on Tyner’s tunes. He has rarely played on record with this level of creative energy and eloquence. He had to be aware of all the great reed players who have preceded him in Tyner’s presence, starting with the greatest of all, Coltrane.

Azar Lawrence played on the original “Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit.” (He was a riveting saxophonist and a mysterious figure who disappeared for 30 years and has recently resurfaced on the Los Angeles scene.) The performance on Quartet is 15 minutes shorter than the one at Montreux, but contains more information. Lovano’s two solos, in their flurries and tangents and convoluted details, explore implications that Lawrence never suspected.

Joe Henderson played “Passion Dance” and “Search for Peace” on The Real McCoy in 1967, and Lovano alludes to Henderson’s bursts and trills. Then, after commanding each song’s thesis, he quickly moves into his own language. It’s an exhilarating mode of expression in which ideas proceed in an inexhaustible continuum, trajectories in all directions, hard-edged on “Passion Dance,” measured but fervent on “Search for Peace.”

George Adams played “Blues on the Corner” with Tyner in 1990 (on Things Ain’t What They Used to Be). Adams was strong. Lovano just kills it. Lovano’s excitement to be in this band sometimes carries him to the splintered edge, where he even recalls another tenor who played with Tyner, Pharoah Sanders.

But this is Tyner’s album-it is in fact the debut release on his own label, McCoy Tyner Music-and he still plays with strength and authority, and still sounds like no other pianist on the planet. Those bass lines like earthquakes are still here, and so are the layered densities, the opaque chord voicings and the hurtling momentums. The difference with Tyner today is that he picks his spots. He often solos later, and always more concisely, than Lovano and McBride. He lets his tenor saxophonist and his bassist drive most of these tunes (and Tyner’s tunes are like slingshots to launch soloists). His own solos in the middle become fascinating interludes, alternative perspectives-like the tight, intricate architecture he erects in a small space on “Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit.”

One of the spots he picks is “For All We Know,” the only solo piece, the only standard. It’s a special experience to hear Tyner play a ballad, with his extravagant flourishes and bashing tremolos. You feel like you’re in the presence of a dormant volcano: overwhelming force that might break loose any moment, without warning.

Quartet succeeds not only because everyone plays so well, but also because they play so well together. The pairing of Tyner and Lovano is synergistic. The McBride/Watts rhythm section, for intelligent propulsion, is state-of-the-art.

Quartet succeeds once more because of its excellent sonic quality. It was recorded by engineer Phil Edwards at Yoshi’s in Oakland, Calif., over New Year’s Eve weekend 2006. Almost always, even the best-sounding jazz albums require you to make a choice. You can have the visceral in-the-moment reality of a live recording, or the full bandwidth resolution of a studio session. This one has both.