Strings can be a double-edged sword for jazz musicians. On the one hand, they can add texture and depth to musical arrangements, but they can also easily become overblown and even sappy, and they can rob a jazz ensemble of the freedom that is so essential to solid improvisation and group dynamics.
On 1976’s Fly With the Wind, McCoy Tyner rises to the challenge of working with a string section, partially because his muscular piano work can stand up to the arrangements.
Tyner has long deserved wider recognition as a composer, and on this disc one can easily see why. His compositions have an open, airy quality to them, even with the strings and the kinetic drum work of Billy Cobham.
Cobham was never busier than in the ‘70s, having come off his time with Miles and then with Mahavishnu Orchestra (as well as solo work with John McLaughlin). He was pretty much the house drummer at CTI Records (even as Ron Carter, who also appears here, was the house bassist), and was the kind of energetic drummer who could play fusion, rock, pop, and fairly straight-ahead jazz with equal energy and alacrity. If there was any drummer before Cobham with his intense approach to the drum kit, it was none other than Tony Williams. Cobham is a very physical presence on Fly With the Wind, always driving the arrangement or the soloist forward.
The selections here were all composed and arranged by Tyner, and there is a distinctly spiritual element to much of the music, supported somewhat by Galen Rowell’s breathtaking cover photo of a snow-covered mountain peak with clouds drifting lazily by its summit. It is searching music, and while it is fairly complex in its structure, it is still quite accessible to the listener, at least in part due to Cobham’s drumming and the guideposts provided by the string arrangements.
The title track, which opens the album, is majestic and powerful, like a mountain. At times it is a little like a big prog-rock opus, but without the pretension or complexity for complexity’s sake. One should scarcely be surprised by the spiritual element present in this music—after all, Tyner had spent many years working closely with John Coltrane, himself something of a spiritual seeker.
Hubert Laws is featured as the lone horn player in the core jazz group (along with Tyner, Cobham, and Ron Carter), and he bridges the gap between the jazz unit and the string/woodwind section nicely. There is another flute player, an oboe, and harp, all lending to the orchestral feel. Because Laws can improvise and plays solos he is an instrumental voice that seems to rise up out of the orchestral group rather than the jazz ensemble, yet his playing is completely in synch with the jazz section.
Then there’s McCoy Tyner himself. With his signature chord voicing, often utilizing fourths, his thunderous low left-hand bass patterns, and his triadic arpeggiated right-hand playing, his voice is highly distinctive. This time period was a fruitful one for Tyner, and his work for Orrin Keepnews’ Milestone label has proven extremely durable and influential through the years. One reason for this is that he fell into no camp that was around at the time—not fusion, not avant-garde, and not mainstream post-bop, either.
The remastering job done on this album is of great benefit as well, and there are two alternate takes included. Those who do not feel that vibrant, innovative jazz music was being recorded during the mid-1970s have either never heard Tyner’s Milestone or Fantasy albums or have forgotten about them. The reissue of McCoy Tyner’s Fly with the Wind should go a long way towards resolving that.