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THE REAL McCOY

July 11 2013

When someone uses the word “idyllic” to describe a scene, we think of Monet’s Water Lillies or another classic of impressionism – a work in summery shades that pretty much demands a daydream. But there are different kinds of idylls – as “Search For Peace,” one of five McCoy Tyner originals here, suggests. The tempo is slow, stately, deliberate. The harmony, outlined first by piano trills and broken chords, has purpose behind it: The title implies an ongoing and perhaps unattainable quest, not some easily abandoned momentary pursuit. The theme, when it arrives, enhances this sense – it’s at once solemn like a hymn, and contemplative, and also floatingly free. It puts forth an idealistic vision of what “peace” might feel like, and in the same breath holds the full awareness of possible (likely) futility. Crucially, it’s not the jingoistic sloganeering of a peace rally; it’s a meditation on the potentiality of peace, and what it means to pursue it.

Of course “peace” as a concept meant something different on April 22, 1967 than it does today. When Tyner and his group gathered at Rudy Van Gelder’s place to record this landmark, war was raging in Vietnam and the social upheavals over civil rights, race and the fast-emerging hippie culture were simmering throughout America. The jazz community responded to this heady time in all kinds of ways – song titles became commentary, and inevitably the “heat” of the cultural moment informed recordings and performances. Tyner, who departed from the Coltrane group in 1965, evidently felt that there was a need for music that looked inward and invited reflection. In Nat Hentoff’s original liner notes, the pianist explains that when he wrote the piece, he perceived it as outlining a spiritual mission, “the giving over of the self to the universe.”

The Real McCoy is Tyner’s Blue Note debut, and though it starts in a frenzied mood with “Passion Dance,” much of it finds the pianist and composer creating zones of reflection, offering musical refuge from the tumult of the times. Tyner has said that he left the Coltrane group because of its increasingly chaotic dissonance; his compositions here utilize the open block-chord harmonies Coltrane loved, channeled into tightly focused rhapsodies. There is a vibe of serenity in the writing, not just in the ascending theme of “Search for Peace,” but also the gentle, affirmative modal journey entitled “Contemplation” – this album contains five tunes, and two of them are riveting downtempo ballads. The other three are equally poised and thoughtful, and each is defined by its own internal logic. “Passion Dance” is an essay in rhythmic upheaval: Tyner’s spikes and Elvin Jones’ jabs establish an obstacle course, and the challenge for tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson is to navigate the shifting patterns while creating a cogent ad-libbed testimony. (Of the many Blue Note sessions featuring strong work by Henderson, this might be his shining hour, in part because of his patient impossible-to-notate inventions on “Passion Dance” and “Contemplation.”) “Four By Five” offers polyrhythmic daring in a different hue, while the entrancingly settled “Blues on the Corner,” the session’s lone blues, suggests that even this formidable group understood the importance of kicking back once in a while.

The peak statement of Tyner’s solo career, The Real McCoy is also one of a handful of recordings that define hard bop. Lots of records from this genre have interesting tunes and blazing solo performances, but few attain such an interconnected synergy. Listening to these these rich, beautifully realized atmospheres, and how they inspire deep, passionate, strikingly collective improvisations, you realize we are far removed from the anxieties – and the idealistic quests for peace – that governed 1967. That’s a mixed blessing.