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.