In my college composition class, my professor looked at one of my pieces and cautioned against being seduced by jazz harmony. He actually loved jazz but said this to warn me that stacking harmonies too high and too frequently could render the function of harmony in the piece -- and therefore its tonality -- meaningless. Overexposure reduces impact. It was a wake-up call for this naive young composer who was too eager to bring a foreign sensibility into an exercise in classical composition (albeit "contemporary classical").
In jazz, though, what a pianist does with a chord (voicing, substitutions and extensions, not to mention delivery) is what gives him his identity. Thick, mile-high slabs of harmony can certainly be compelling if produced by the right hands. McCoy Tyner's hands have been stunning audiences for decades to this effect.
It is, however, a situation of apples and oranges: Tyner's MO is not actually to "blow" over chord changes but to explore the possibilities offered when the tonal center is anchored. In this way, modal jazz allows for impressive flights of fancy, and Tyner's playing is perhaps the best example of this (alongside Coltrane's, naturally). Milestone has gathered some of Tyner's most captivating performances on that label in the 1970s onto Milestone Profiles: McCoy Tyner.
"The Greeting" from 1977's Supertrios is harmonically bright and vigorously delivered. Ron Carter and Tony Williams are responsive in a more aggressive sense than with Miles Davis's second quintet of the previous decade. The title cut from Sama Layuca offers some lushly voiced melodies based on exotic scales accented by Bobby Hutcherson's vibes and John Stubblefield's flute. Tyner's solo here ventures quite "outside" the vamp (you can hear him pulling away from Carter's vamp), but he resolves the tension before Azar Lawrence's soprano sax feature. The solo recital of "Naima" is rapturous, full of single-note runs, cascading chords and a wide range of emotion. The pedal (prolonged bass note) of the composition suits Tyner's modal approach perfectly. This solo performance is also ideal in that he has no fear of overstepping his bandmates or exceeding the boundaries of the chart. In the album's liner notes, Robert L. Doerschuk writes that on "Search for Peace," Tyner "seems to push constantly against the limits of the written parts," that he is keenly aware of "the contrast between his restlessness and the stateliness of the structure." I'm inclined to agree. His passion has always taken his music right to the edge.
Tyner conjures up some of the jazz world's heaviest textures and most titanic harmonies, sounds that are as overwhelming as beautiful. In listening to the nine tracks on the new Milestone compilation, it seems that eighty-eight keys are not enough for Tyner to express himself. His signature is his harmonic storminess, but we can also hear the clarity of his musical vision.
Buy Milestone Profiles: McCoy Tyner.