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Monday, August 2, 2010

What, Me Worry? McCoy Tyner and the Pentatonic Scale-by Steve Provizer

It may be the most ubiquitous scale in the world and arguably the oldest. Anywhere in the world, when someone carves a flute, plucks a string or twangs a piece of metal they inevitably stumble into some variation of a 5-note-pentatonic-scale. It sounds good. It offers simplicity, yet potential for tension and relaxation. You can use it to create chants, melodies and twist it to suit your fancy. The blues, early jazz, then rock, are all about the pentatonic, with a few altered notes for good effect. But kids, in the early 1960's, something happened to pentatonic and its name was McCoy Tyner. The change was rooted in necessity-an uneasy adaptation to 'free' jazz, as I'll describe below. But 45 years later, reverberations from the changes wrought by the gifted Tyner are still ringing and for me, a re-evaluation, fresh ears and new adaptations are called for. Back in the 1960's, the question McCoy had to ask himself was: What do you do if you're playing a fixed-pitch instrument with someone(Coltrane) who has left the diatonic and chromatic restrictions of Western music behind; who has essentially bid adieu to the harmony that underlay jazz for the last-say-50 years. The answer, of course, is to find a way to fit in. McCoy's approach, his strategy, his solution, was to alter his playing so that the harmony he played was based on "perfect" intervals-4ths and 5ths-and yes, in this most sophisticated of musics, the musical scale this most accommodated was our old friend, the 'primitive' pentatonic scale. In McCoy's"open" harmony, almost anything could happen. Notes "not on the horn," as they say, could be at least partly accommodated. There was a transitional period when it seemed to work for Coltrane and other times when he asked McCoy to lay out. As the texture of Trane's music grew even denser, just changing the harmony wasn't enough and McCoy used another creative approach: shift the weight of the piano from melody and harmony to percussion. Pedal tones were one good way to do that-you could really land on those suckers-but it meant harmony was still in the mix. McCoy pushed percussiveness as far as he was comfortable, but he was not Cecil Taylor. Eventually, the fabric of Trane's music grew so dense that accompaniment as usually understood became superfluous. Ok-I've strayed. Pushing the piano's percussive envelope is a question for another time. It's the widespread leakage of McCoy's harmonic approach into the general language of jazz that feels off; like the kid who's too old, but shows up at the playground anyway and doesn't fit in the swing; kinda like Jelly Roll Morton's "Spanish Tinge" run amok. Come to think of it, let's play a Latin tune; Blue Bossa, maybe.


Mary Anybody said...

I just saw McCoy Tyner play a concert in Switzerland. He is so old now, and critics who saw it made sour faces and wrote that he should give it up. Seeing as he still has so much fun playing, cheering on the others, and of course still on his beloved 4th-chords and his really loud pedal octaves you describe, it would be cruel to take it away from him! He might know his zenith is over - but people still blog about him...

Steve Provizer said...

Thanks for commenting. I haven't seen McCoy in a few years and don't really have a desire to. His place in jazz history is justifiably secure. I suppose my piece here was more about the "Law of Unintended Consequences." HIs solutions made sense at the time and it now makes sense for McCoy to go on being McCoy, but I think it's time for some of his influence to be creatively transformed-if that is in fact possible.

Ian Carey said...

One thing to keep in mind is that Trane was playing pentatonics, too, and from the two of them you can see a pretty straight line through Chick, Brecker, Woody Shaw, Liebman, etc. as they were assimilated into the bag of modern jazz language. However, it sounds like you might be lamenting the repetitive and boring use of pentatonics by less skilled improvisers, which I would argue is less the fault of the tools and more the fault of the workman (not Reggie)--and that can happen with any tool when it's used in an uncreative way (which we've all heard done with blues scales, small-interval chromaticism, Bird licks, etc., all of which I've abused in the past myself).

Steve Provizer said...

Ian-I personally don't think pentatonics was a high priority in Trane-except in specifically blues playing. McCoy had a much broader application of pentatonics, 4th's, pedal tones...

And yea, misuse over time of tools is one aspect. I also think the Great Man problem is part of it. We mortals are so susceptible to falling under the sway of the great ones-and this relates to the big conversation on the Alice C. post-Ya wanna get the inspiration, but like an adolescent who has to break away (kill) his parents, the metaphorical-musical surgeon's knife must be wielded.

Eric Zinman said...

Well, since I'm a pianist, I will dare to something. I was very much under the spell of McCoy Tyner when I first heard LOVE SUPREME. I couldn't get that sound out of my head. I never tried to systematically reproduce McCoy's approach as many students did. When I was in music school, every pianist seemed to sound either like Bill Evans or McCoy Tyner. Two pianists that I was under the spell of....that finished it for me and I took my ears elsewhere. I don't know if Bobby Few's approach was influenced by McCoy but I became more interested in Bobby Few. I also found other pianists whose approach I thought more interesting.

McCoy's placement and attack are of course paramount and I believe that is the energy that inspires most listeners.
observations of interest

Both McCoy and Bill Evans use a lot of pedal. McCoy uses it to project and he hits the piano harder than most players I ever saw. I also noticed that when McCoy played, he would raise his left hand over his head and come down on the piano like the wing of a bird descending. That interested me far more than pentatonics.McCoy's left hand was the one thing most imitators could not seem to grasp. But McCoy's use of the pedal is largely for projection. For Bill Evans the pedal was used to allow phrases and tones to bleed and blend into each other much like the way Chopin players like Horowitz and Rubinstein use the pedal.

gerardcoxblog said...

Jeez. An aesthetic aversion masquerading as some kind of musical treatise. How totally white of you.

It's cool if you can't relate to Tyner's concept or style. Just keep it at that though. Don't make a convoluted argument about "solutions" because all you're really talking about is your own taste.

There are people who have extended his concept BTW, though I doubt you're that familiar with them. Marc Cary, James Hurt, and Stephen Scott have all adapted his approach in interesting ways. Cary is thoroughly "pentatonic" but extremely musical about it. Hurt brings an air of unpredictability to it all, and Scott refracts it through some of the most badass rhythmic sensibility around. Of course there's also Mulgrew Miller, though I'm sure he's passe in your book also.

Christopher Ruston Rich said...

Cut him a bit o slack, Gerard, at least he wrote about McCoy.

I loved that photo on the cover of the Farmer/Golson group where a young McCoy first shows up and his band suit doesn't fit well so his pants are hiked way up over his socks as he leans into the Piano.

As a kid I marveled at those Sus 4's. You could get a punchy sound with the Tonic fattened by the 4 and 5 in a mini cluster while the right hand could float.

But once those groups with Ali and Pharoah happened or a furnace like Ascension, what's any pianist to do really? The mighty Cecil would be a mere canary fart in that sawmill.

And after leaving, he gave us years of stirring fun ensemble writing, maybe not as relentless as the Coltrane roar but edifying and compelling in the way something like Point of Departure is.

I like it anyway. That and 2 bucks 'll get you coffee.

Steve Provizer said...

Thanks, all, for commenting. No masquerade intended, my friend. My taste all the way...I was a major McCoy fan; even sought him out for an interview in 1969. True, over time, his music stopped moving me as it once did. In any case, it's the after-effects I focused on.

Gerard doesn't like the solutions notion, but let me ask: If you were Trane's piano player, and your continuing in the group was in question, would you have gone gently into the good night-or might you have devised some strategy that would have kept you a viable presence?

gerardcoxblog said...

Well, I do understand what you're saying...and I'll take you at your word that you're not going out of your way to sleight Tyner. But I'd have to wonder like Chris Rich does whether it was even possible for a piano to function in that environment.

There were two main issues as far as I've gathered: 1) sheer volume-- McCoy has said he couldn't even hear himself play....and 2) static harmony-- you have a piano player comping in large part to outline chords. But if there's only two or three chords to may as well have a Cecil Taylor just pounding and playing knotty fills everywhere. I think any piano player, McCoy included- would have found diminishing returns for his/her comping duties in that situation.

The only thing I could have seen is....ORGAN. Volume definitely would not have been an issue, and you can comp fewer chords but SUSTAIN them and create interesting swells as well as movement within the sustained chords. I would not have seen organ bass lines with Trane's group-- that would have "anchored" things a bit too much. But as some kind of harmonic foil and as a kind of third horn in the ensemble-- yes, I think it would have worked. It's interesting that Alice didn't really get into playing Wurlitzer organ until later. I could have seen her applying the same kind of playing she did with that organ in Trane's band....or Larry Young. Not clean, precise Larry Young but the textural, murky, Lifetime Larry Young (Khaled Yasin...)

Steve Provizer said...

Yes, that's my point-that piano stopped working in that context. Tyner was very creative in trying to find alternatives, but...

Organ is an interesting idea, in terms of volume and sustain. The challenge is or was, that the Smith/McGriff and co. organ trio approach had saturated the musical environment and it was so specific.The leslie/blues/funk sound carried over into even something as different as Lifetime. Of course, you do have Sun Ra.

gerardcoxblog said...

For whatever this is worth, if you listen to Alice Coltrane's last record "Translinear Light", she and Ravi (with Jack D on drums I believe...) play a cover of Trane's Leo where she's playing Wurlitzer organ. It might be easier to conceive of how an organ might have worked out in hearing that track.

Of course, because Trane died so young (early 40s is young in my book), there are many things to ponder about what he may have done had he lived longer. Some consider this sacrilege or in poor taste...but I think for musicians, it is only natural to speculate about what a visionary musician like Coltrane could have gotten into had he been afforded more time on Earth. Also, I think there is a lot of meaning and purpose to be found in trying to extend the concepts of a historic musician who one finds great resonance in. I don't personally subscribe to the kind of fatalistic view that "they gave everything to the world that they had, and you shouldn't try to add to it" or that their body of work should be viewed as strict beginning and end. I take the view that someone's body of work is potentially unending insofar as their ideas permeate the work of their peers and future generations.

Near the end of his life Coltrane was working with the Varitone. He was fascinated with strings (Alice tried to honor this with Infinity)...and he wanted to incorporate hand percussion into his music more.

I think he probably would have been captivated by the world of synthesis as well.

Matt Lavelle said...

Steve,.thanks,.you have me listening to Trane now from a different perspective,.checking out the Piano angle more closely.

imagine just BEING MT in that environment.

There really is a way to "comp" when the density comes,.or the energy goes way up,.just check out my man Chris Forbes on my record,.the manifestation drama.You can also "comp" when the music goes harmeilodic.(again I refer to Chris.)

Even at full bore many free players have a melodic sense,.and even harmonic progression,.improvised,.the Piano can still be there with us! (course this is best done in a playing relationship built over time)

Matt Lavelle said...


yeah,.my spelling is WHACK..

Steve Provizer said...

I will check that out, Matt...It's impossible to know what Trane would have done, of course, although a serious interest in electronics seems to me a stretch. Breath through a horn was a preeminent value in his conception. Also, look at the sidemen he chose-people who really put the hammer down and the fact that, with the exception of an early Kenny Burrell record, he never chose to even work with guitarists.

Matt Lavelle said...

I've dabbled in electronics and found that breath connection that you speak of the real obstacle,.and I stopped searching in that direction.

However,.those artists could create great sonic landscapes for us to play over,.and go way past what Miles did with AURA..

If Trane found an orchestrator that created an environment he felt natural in,.


Bruno Leicht said...

Miles was well known for his (thought) provoking, sometimes very rude, and brutally honest statements.

I recall having read his verdict that "Trane and Elvin would have been totally sufficient", and that "piano, and bass would nothing add to Trane's & Elvin's sounds which wasn't already there." -- Something like that he said.

Well, no one protested. I would have asked Miles, if that's so, why has Trane hired a pianist (and a bassist) at all? (Trane fulfilled his request with "Interstellar Space"; and Elvin played a whole week in his own Nagasaki jazz club just with bass, then completely alone).

I love McCoy's playing in the John Coltrane Quartet during that time of the great albums "My Favorite Things", "Coltrane's Sound", "Afro Blue Impressions", "Ballads", "A Love Supreme", "Crescent", "Coltrane", "Olé", and "Africa/Brass".

The "...plays Ellington"-album from 1964 is a marvel, isn't it? -- His later "fireworks" don't interest me too much. Too many notes.

I'm not particularly interested in pentatonic either. But when I hear it inside, and it would make musical sense I would let it come out of course.

It seems to be natural for McCoy to play it; it's the very same with fourths: If you don't hear them, you won't play them.

Let's take Woody Shaw (thanks for mentioning him, Ian) as an example: The fourth was "his"; he owned it; and so, everything he did on the trumpet with fourths came out perfectly logical, and musical. It was a natural thing for him to play in this way; just as it was natural for Bird and Trane - and for Harry James ;), to play the blues; as it was for Sonny Rollins to play the calypso; or for Monk to play old hymns, and swing standards: They grew up with it.

The pentatonic scale is only an extension of the blues; in a way. Some would call it intellectual (okay, some practice it too often), or technical, or just put-on (like many of Freddie Hubbard's phrases); but it is a natural thing to play for McCoy.

Weren't there enough Bill Evans-, Oscar Peterson-, and Bud Powell-clones around, then ... and unfortunately now?

Steve Provizer said...

Hi Brew, Thanks for joining in and resuscitating this thread...I think enough new points have been made in the comments that it's worth it for me to try and extend this conversation with a new post.