There's no shortage of rock musicians trundling right past retirement age without hanging it up. They're often content to satisfy fans with rote deliveries of greatest hits that have more to do with muscle memory than with inspiration. Conversely, jazz players in their golden years often thrive on moving outside their comfort zone. Piano legend McCoy Tyner stands as a great example of an artist who has continually embraced new challenges since his storied stint in saxophonist John Coltrane's classic quartet of the 1960s.
Tyner has cut a wide swath during his career, although explorations of the modal postbop sounds he blueprinted remain the cornerstone of his catalog. From the African and Eastern influences heard on his 1972 album, Sahara, through regular Latin jazz summits at Yoshi's to unusual one-off collaborations (including an SFJAZZ concert with tap-dance virtuoso Savion Glover in March), he doesn't shy away from new ideas.
Tyner's latest studio project, Guitars, matches the pianist's thunderous block chords and harmonic invention with a varied cast of ax slingers. With frequent partners Ron Carter (bass) and Jack DeJohnette (drums) providing a rhythmic foundation, the album spotlights acknowledged guitar masters John Scofield and Bill Frisell as well as left-of-center choices like downtown NYC experimenter Marc Ribot, banjo fusionist Bela Fleck, and young blues maestro Derek Trucks.
The recording stemmed from Tyner's desire to venture into new territory. "It [started with] the thought, 'What can I do that I haven't done already?'" he says. "So after discussing the idea, I said, 'Hey, I haven't done a lot of work with guitars, so let's put a unique group of guys together and see what kind of music we can make.'"
The pairings bring out some inspired interplay. Scofield's fiery readings of Coltrane standard "Mr. P.C." and Tyner favorite "Blues on the Corner" bristle with energy, while Frisell and the pianist offer nuanced counterpoints on Tyner's "Contemplation" and an aching duet of Frisell's "Boubacar." Trucks also performs admirably on the slide-drenched "Slapback Blues" and a stately rendition of the traditional tune "Greensleeves." Only Fleck's contributions come off as too well-mannered; the interpretation of "My Favorite Things" sounds gimmicky with his plunking banjo taking the lead.
The real revelation of the collection comes in the songs featuring Ribot. From the distorted power chords that kick off Tyner's "Passion Dance" through a pair of alternately atonal and delicate duo improvisations, Ribot and Tyner spark each other to dizzying heights. As odd as it is to hear the guitarist's buzzing skronk butting up against Tyner's muscular playing, the match makes for some of the album's most fascinating moments.
Jazz fans lucky enough to catch Tyner when he brings his trio to town — with Ribot on board as a special guest — should get a dose of high-flying, instant composition live. "So far we haven't sat down and decided what we're going to play, but I'm sure I'll bring some stuff to the table and so will Marc," he says. "We'll just have to wait and see what happens on the bandstand."
With Ribot's focused fuzztone fury providing Tyner a challenging melodic foil, the potential for musical pyrotechnics is limitless for the pianist once again.