McCOY TYNER Sahara (Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab)
So, after attempting to be diplomatically polite about some cornerstones of jazz history that had less of an impact upon me than anticipated, here’s something I can be genuinely and unguardedly enthusiastic about. It’s surely belittling Tyner to refer to him as John Coltrane’s pianist – he worked with the saxophonist throughout the first half of the 1960s, appearing on classic recordings such as “My Favorite Things” and “A Love Supreme” – but it might assist in placing this terrific album in some kind of context. It’s wild, free, unconstrained music that might, at a pinch, be classified as jazz rock were it not for its lack of voltage.
“Ebony Queen” launches the album with an apocalyptic blam, perhaps echoed in the cover photograph of Tyner sitting amidst piles of rubble and mud, protectively cradling his koto. It’s almost like a jazz version of the tumbling opening to Yes’ “Close To The Edge”, suggesting late-period Coltrane somehow wrangled into a more regular rhythmic structure. The sleeve note mentions Tyner’s preference for an acoustic rather than electric instrumentation: “on acoustic piano you can sound like water, like mountains, like so many different things”. On “A Prayer For My Family” he conducts a kind of topographic exploration via his keyboard; it’s a wonder how he manages to simultaneously conjure up so much volume and texture. “Valley Of Life” almost repeats the excursion on koto, with additional flute and percussion shading, but “Rebirth” finds the group ferocious again, Tyner in particular barrelling through the notes like a runaway train, desperate to rip the music out of himself. Sonny Fortune, playing alto, sounds particularly Coltrane-esque on this track.
All the above, however, feel like preparatory sketches created whilst limbering up for the 23-minute title track, with its African percussion, rude, blaring trumpets and flutes and Tyner driving out demonic orchestras from his piano. The band turn time signatures around on a dime at speeds that by rights should result in a four-man pile-up. Yet for all its apparent free-form spontaneity, it doesn’t shun the comforting harbour of melody amidst the white-hot creativity.
“Sahara” is a challenging but joyous and exhilarating album. It’s considered the creative and commercial peak of Tyner’s solo work, as its Grammy nomination and sales of 100,000 copies attest. Mobile Fidelity’s limited edition vinyl reissue (I’ve got number 1957 of an alleged 2000) is packaged and pressed with the company’s customary lavish care and attention, and no doubt sounds as good as the master tapes will allow, which is slightly brittle and fatiguing at times to these ears. However, a lurching dropout during “Ebony Queen” suggests that those master tapes haven’t had the most pampered of existences during the last 37 years.