McCoy Tyner: 13th House (2003)
As with any art form, ambitious undertakings in jazz can be a tight rope enterprise. Marshalling substantial resources and broad rosters sometimes yields brilliance, other times it amounts to ill- advised self-indulgence. A survey of McCoy Tyner’s early post-Coltrane oeuvre shows the pianist often reaching for an expansive orchestral sound as well as incorporating a wide range of ‘world’ music elements into his music. His producers at Milestone were sympathetic to his ambitions, fronting both the bankroll and a widely circulated forum for his experiments. Scrutinized with hindsight these industrious entries often echo the above-mentioned uncertainties.
This particular reissue is something of a cipher. Written annotations and commentary in the way of sleeve notes are nearly nonexistent, replaced by sparsely sketched session details and a photo snapshot of Tyner’s contemplative visage. Fusion impulses find purchase in the viscous amplification of Ron Carter’s strings. On his larger group albums Tyner usually required his bassists to plug in, perhaps to be heard better in the context of the imposing wall of horns. But rather than of clarifying his musicians’ lines the added electricity usually only muddied them. Fortunately Tyner’s ivories and the rhythms of Jack DeJohnette and the Brazilian percussionists remain lucid in their acoustic guises.
On the flowing, sectional “Short Suite” Hubert Laws’ featherweight piccolo flirts and swirls with the elephantine notes of Carter’s bass as the bright phalanx of riffing, layered horns supplies counterpoint. Ricky Ford’s tenor breaks ranks next, blowing gustily against the tumbling backdrop of DeJohnette’s stick-drawn patterns. Tyner’s lush, if somewhat simply voiced, solo reels the group back into chordal territory, before a rock-inflected showcase by the drummer signals a final ensemble flight through the theme. The Jimmy Heath penned title track makes use a light Latin beat and loose horn harmonies to advance a lazy swing. Tyner turns in some his most nimble improvising of the date, but Carter again sounds constricted by his overly corpulent strings during a solo that stalls on ostinato repetition.
Overblown atmospherics mar “Search for Peace” and the track hedges uncomfortably into the territory of sentimental fluff, especially during his flowery piano interlude. Brashear’s effusive flugelhorn exclamations recapture a modicum of tension, but the piece largely falls flat under weight of excessive orchestration.
“Love Samba” benefits from a tighter, far more propulsive arrangement. The horns race across a boiling rhythmic current shaped by Carter’s elastic line and a tidal rush of percussion, but the piece still wears it’s '80s pedigree on its sleeve through florid embellishments. Each of the Ford brothers takes a spirited sojourn in the solo spotlight, and then it’s the leader in a brisk run down the keyboard mixing potent left hand accents with scuttling right hand melodic figures. Frank Foster’s “Leo Rising” caps the session off in modal fashion and the group revels in the dark harmonies that fuel the composition’s core.
A mixed bag shot through with sections of exciting synergy, this disc ranks as one of Tyner’s lesser efforts overall. Admirable for its orchestral aspirations, the session ultimately stands as an example of ambitions outdistancing the realities of execution.
Milestone on the web: http://www.fantasyjazz.com
Track Listing: Short Suite/ 13th House/ Search for Peace/ Love Samba/ Leo Rising.
Personnel: McCoy Tyner- piano; Oscar Brashear- trumpet; Kamau Muata Adilifu (aka Charles Sullivan)- flugelhorn; Slide Hampton-trombone; Hubert Laws- piccolo, flute; Frank Foster- clarinet, tenor & soprano saxophones; Joe Ford- alto & soprano saxophones, flute; Ricky Ford-tenor & soprano saxophones; Greg Williams- French horn; Bob Stewart- tuba; Ron Carter- bass; Jack DeJohnette- drums; Airto-percussion, conga; Dom Um Romao-percussion, conga. Recorded: October 1980, NYC.