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CD Feature/ McCoy Tyner: "Afro Blue"

img  Tobias

At the age of 69, McCoy Tyner is as active as ever. Not only has he just released an album filled with live-versions of some of his classics as part of yet another trilogy (“Quartet”), he has also decided to take on distribution duties himself, founding “McCoy Tyner Music” as his personal record company. Whether or not this effectively ends his contract with Telarc is anyone’s guess, but “Afro Blue” certainly does a great job at looking back at their relationship, which proved to be anything but a pensioner’s hobby.

In fact, the Telarc years, which span from 1998 until 2002 and have been documented on five CDs, were a time of redefinitions, of searching for the old in the new and of playing the classics as if there were no tomorrow: No line-up was the same, every work had its own concept and if ever a single musician should turn up for two different sessions (saxophonist Garry Bartz being that exception), then there’d be years separating them. “I have never rested on my laurels”, Tyner says. He certainly hasn’t.

Which is why “Afro Blue” does not sound like one of those lovelessly compiled safe-bet Best Of's labels like to churn out towards the end of the year. Instead, it is a precise and sharp selection of a remarkably active and eclectic period. The emphasis is on the mood-material, on the softer side of Tyner, which has often been forgotten or undervalued in relation to his powerful soloing. Even the groovy and elastic cuts have a lustrously smooth and elegant touch to them, with Tyner mixing genially subtle voicing variations in the right hand with rhythmic fluency in the left. And yet, despite the coherency of the repertoire, this is by no means a lush barjazz CD.

As always, it is the intricate details and the hidden nuances that make all the difference. McCoy Tyner turns the title piece, a gem from his time with Coltrane, into a spacious latin-epic replete with flute lines, sax whirls, suggestive piano melodies and lends a symphonic and majestic feel to the main motive. “Summertime”, too, stretches time as if it were made of spandex, frying Gershwin’s vision in the heat of the desert sun and slowing it down to a simmering funeral march pace. On the more tangible ballads “If I should loose you” and especially on “If I were a Bell” (with Bobby Hutcherson on vibes), he leaves plenty of limelight to his collaborators, but his insistent chordings remain the driving force, even when performed from the background.

Tyner’s influence on generations of Jazz musicians has been reiterated and repeated in about every article and wikipedia entry over the last decade. But what makes “Afro Blue” so interesting for anyone with a keen interest for the shadings underneath the surface is what it tells us about where he himself searches for inspiration. Thus, obvious references to the world of musicals as well as to friends and colleagues such as Chick Corea and Keith Jarret find themselves side-by-side with surprising allusions to classical music and to Chopin more particularly.

You don’t need to dip your toe into electronics and cross-over projects to be hip, this album seems to say, nor to to make a difference. What this means is that “Afro Blue” tells us just as much about what turned McCoy Tyner into a living legend as it reveals about his ongoing relevance for the future of jazz. At the age of 69, he is not only as active as ever, but still matters in every aspect of the word.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: McCoy Tyner
Homepage: Telarc Records

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