The #mayvinylchallenge for Day 3 revolves around whatever it is you currently have on repeat. In the parlance of the times, what are you #nowplaying? The past few weeks I’ve been having late night chat and game sessions with my friends, and we’re all jazz heads, although truth be told their scope is much broader than mine. And so it came to pass during a lengthy session discussing Eric Dolphy we hit upon McCoy Tyner and the wonders of his Expansions album when talking about good reissues. Expansions was reissued on Blue Note’s Tone Poet series, and I managed to find a copy online for $15 in great condition, so here we are.
The specifics of the album aren’t that important here, but in the interest of completeness, here: recorded in 1968, released in 1970, this is Tyner on his own and a few years out from the incredible time he was with John Coltrane (60-65). It’s a murderer’s row of talent with him, including Wayne Shorter on tenor sax and clarinet, Ron Carter on cello, Woody Shaw on trumpet, Freddie Waits on drums, Gary Bartz on alto sax and flute, and Herbie Lewis doubling down on the lower frequencies on bass. Despite the pedigree of the players this is still clearly Tyner’s show, and his piano playing is an absolute beast on Expansions, pushing everyone to up their game, from the syncopated 5/4 intro of opener “Vision” that permeates into the main theme before everyone – Tyner included – launch into extended jams and solos, with Carter’s cello being a standout.
“Song of Happiness” utilizes the beautiful bow and pluck work of Carter against both Lewis’s bass and Tyner’s playing to great effect, and the 10+ minute exercise gives the more avantgarde elements of the opening track in favor of a more melodic, nodding vibe, helped along by Shorter and Bartz bringing their classical woodwinds in. Supposedly one of the reason Tyner left Coltrane’s group was the increasing exploration into denser and denser sounds that left Tyner with little space to express himself. The swaying moods of “Song of Happiness” as well as the rest of Expansions show a composer and player unafraid of pushing forward, but also content to hang those explorations on melody and air.
It’s a beautiful side A, and a chance for my own excursion. I’ve been playing the album in the car as well as in the house, and my son and I listened to and talked about it as I drove him to and from school, and to his martial class in the evening. He plays trumpet; been playing it for over six years,. and is a member of his school’s small jazz ensemble. He’s also taken college leave music theory, and he’s admittedly much bette than I at understand the complexities of rhythm and time, so we had a blast outing off and clapping long to the different changes throughout the first side of this album. It’s a small exchange, one he probably won’t remember as being particularly noteworthy, but as he gets older and less inclined to hang out with his parents (completely understandable, BTW) these small moments in the car were a rush, connecting and then giving him the space to start talking about the rest of his day: the documentary he’d been watching, his homework assignments, and what he was planning to do this weekend. He may not remember it; I always will.
Side B opens with “Smitty’s Place” and it’s a crashing, up-tempo piece, making use of some great double soloing before returning to the great big band swing refrain, although no sing band had drums crash quite like Waits does here. “Peresina” again takes the more contemplative route, Tyner’s lyrical playing opening the way for a great melodic line from Shorter, Bartz and Shaw. Waits’s drums give off a light Latin flair as the band moves backwards in time before taking their excellent solos. As Expansions closes with the lovely Calvin Massey ballad “I Thought I’d Let You Know” the thing I come away with most is how delicate Tyner’s playing can be, and how on his own he’s capable of bringing so many different moods into a single album. There’s a lovely straddling between the still popular hard modal jazz and the new free, provocative jazz that would sooner arrive en force, buoyed by a respect and love for the past. You can hear it all here in McCoy Tyner’s lovely, lovely album; a beast even when it purrs.