When McCoy Tyner is involved, the first word that comes to mind is “strong.” Whether you’re mining the vaults and enjoying his work with John Coltrane or enjoying some of his prolific work from 4 decades as a leader, Tyner never fails to astound with his assaults on the keys. His piano probably needs to be tuned as much as a guitar, and its appropriate, then, that his latest release finds the virtuoso pianist playing some of his most beloved tunes with an equally powerful array of six-string accompanists. Featuring a dream rhythm section of bassist Ron Carter and the immortal Jack DeJohnette on drums, Guitars melds classic jazz composition, avant-garde playing, and righteous be-bop into an irresistible cocktail of sound.
Even typically ferocious playing from Marc Ribot can’t drown the 70-year-old Tyner out on his frantic 1978 composition “Passion Dance,” though Ribot does threaten to steal the show with nimble, artistic work on the solo-filled traditional ‘500 Miles.” A couple of loosey-goosey “Improvisations” also feature Ribot, and the two entities manage not to be abrasive, even with such an odd pair at the controls. John Scofield’s crystalline tone suits the quartet’s reading of Coltrane’s Mr. PC” perfectly, and the loose structures of that tune and the groovy “Blues on the Corner” let Sco’ do what he does best, as he climbs all over the melodies, turning them upside down and around with his liquid playing.
Only a musician as irrepressible and talented as Bela Fleck could find himself on a living legend’s album – one that he’s technically, according to the title, not even supposed to be on – and subsequently turn in the most engaging performances of the whole affair. Armed with his own tunes, “Trade Winds” and “Amberjack,” Fleck assumes a position more akin to a leader and delivers stellar results on those two pieces as well as the beloved-standard-turned-loveable-romp “My Favorite Things.” To have Tyner, Carter, and DeJohnette at his side must have been particularly exciting, and it shows on these unforgettable songs, which are by themselves worth the price of admission.
Derek Trucks steps almost completely out of the picture during his stint on the somewhat forgettable “Slapback Blues,” contributing only his most basic licks to the affair and never slipping completely into the transcendental mode that he’s known for. His turn on “Greensleeves” is similar, as Trucks presents little of the personality so evident on most of his work until he cuts loose with the slide for a bit near the end. Bill Frisell’s selections close out the album, and they are simply gorgeous. Frisell adds even more elegance to a Tyner tune that recently saw its 40th anniversary, “Contemplation,” brings some much-needed ambience to the proceedings with his own meandering “Boubacar,” which blends magically into the upbeat world-grooves of “Baba Drame.”
The atmosphere of this record is just what it should be – not stodgy or strictly jazz, just like the guitarists Tyner chose.