Pianist and composer McCoy Tyner already had an illustrious career during his tenure with the John Coltrane Quartet, and as a leader in the 1960s. Along with the sides he recorded with Trane, Tyner led a number of excellent sessions for Impulse, among them his debut for the label, Inception, as well as Ballads and Blues: both were issued in 1962. Today and Tomorrow (containing a three-horn front line) and Reaching Fourth (with bassist Henry Grimes and drummer Roy Haynes) both appeared in 1963. He was already a fully forged identity, though the influence of and on Coltrane's sound was profound -- his playing and improvising were as much a part of the architecture of that sound as they were part of him when he signed to Blue Note in 1967. He recorded Real McCoy in 1967 with Joe Henderson, Elvin Jones, and Ron Carter, and a quartet date in 1968 called Time for Tyner with Bobby Hutcherson, Herbie Lewis, and Freddie Waits. Between these two albums was the compelling Tender Moments, which boasted on a couple of its selections a nonet. It is on this last recording that the blueprint for Tyner's next move was apparent.
Mosaic Select: McCoy Tyner contains four albums Tyner recorded for the label between August of 1968 and September of 1970, culled from a total of seven sessions. The albums represented are the definitive Expansions, as well as Cosmos, Extensions, and Asante. Each of these records have been released before -- so it's not an Andrew Hill situation -- but until the present time not everything has been available on compact disc. The only constant has been Extensions, released in 1970. Cosmos was issued only as a double LP; some of its material -- three cuts to be exact -- was released as a bonus on the out of print CD issue of Asante, and Expansions has been out of print since the '90s. Mosaic's Michael Cuscuna has re-assembled these sessions chronologically. The material from Expansions in 1968 offers the first complete larger ensemble date in Tyner's career. The band included Woody Shaw, Gary Bartz, Wayne Shorter, and Carter (on cello), as well as Waits and Lewis. There are four Tyner tunes as well as a deeply moving and startling reading of Cal Massey's "I Thought I'd Let You Know." The tune "Song of Happiness" includes wonderful solos by Bartz on flute and by Shorter on clarinet (an instrument he seldom plays). The Cosmos material is the most knotty. It was issued in the '70s after four different sessions. Two of these cuts, "Planet X" and "Vibration Blues," were recorded as trio pieces with the same rhythm team of Waits and Lewis in late November of 1968 and in April of 1969; another track recorded on the latter date featured Harold Vick on soprano, Al Gibbons on various reeds and flute, and a string quartet containing Kermit Moore and Gene Orloff for the title track, written by Coltrane. The remaining sessions for Cosmos were cut in July of 1970, between those re-recorded for Extensions and Asante. These three, heard on the tracks "Forbidden Land," "Asian Lullaby," and "Hope," (all Tyner tunes which were the bonus tracks on the CD release of Asante) place Bartz on alto and soprano, Hubert Laws on flutes, and Andrew White on oboe. The range of colors Tyner was looking toward on this set was extravagant, perhaps, but in their own way this exploration coincided with another member of the Coltrane clan, Alice, who appeared on harp as part of the group for Extensions, which featured Jones, Carter, Shorter, and Bartz (who succeeded Shorter in the Miles Davis Group). Other reunions and extensions of various modal jazz families are at play here: placing Shorter and Carter together from the Miles Quintet, Jones and Tyner with Alice (who succeeded McCoy in JC's band), and Jones with Shorter for the latter's own Blue Note sides. The set is pure modal jazz featuring four long pieces that feel seamless. Along with Expansions, it is perhaps Tyner's crowning achievement. By the time of Asante, Tyner's exploration of varying instrumentation reached a zenith. He relied deeply on group interplay here, whereas before even his choice of voices had been different. He relied on soloists to help him articulate his own music. Here, the group is everything, and there is actually quite little in the way of soloing. Andrew White played alto, Ted Dunbar appeared on guitar, Tyner played wooden flute as well as piano, Buster Williams remained the truly solid anchor on bass, Billy Hart played drums, and Mtume added percussion elements. This final session is restless, conflicted, and sometimes unfocused, though the music is played beautifully. In sum, for those who don't have this material, this is essential. The mastering is beautiful and as with all of the Mosaic sets, the original notes are contained in the package. For those checking out Tyner for the first time, his earlier Blue Note and later Impulse sides may be recommended first, but this is a great place to go eventually. If anything, this is indispensable developmental material, where the many worlds at work in Tyner's mind and composition come to play here in a mostly unified whole.