Perfect Sound Forever

McCoy Tyner Meets Burt Bacharach (Meets Marie McAuliffe!)


Not a Review, More of a Stew
By Kurt Wildermuth
(April 2021)


When the great jazz pianist McCoy Tyner died in 2020, he was best remembered for his work with the toweringly influential jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, and rightly so. From 1960 to 1965, mainly in a quartet with bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones, in concert and on such classic recordings as My Favorite Things (1961), Live at Birdland (1963), and A Love Supreme (1965), Tyner and Coltrane hammered out a multidimensional kind of bop. Their music was hard and soft, tough and tender, sinewy-the product of brains, hearts, and appendages, with no clear distinctions among these parts. Once the Coltrane Quartet lodges in your consciousness, it can seem like shorthand for "jazz."

Saluted in his obituaries but without quite the same reverence was the work Tyner did as a sideman and a leader (with some six dozen albums to his name). Completely lost in the shuffle was an interesting excursion, What the World Needs Now: The Music of Burt Bacharach (1997).

Trust Perfect Sound Forever to bring you the news on that which otherwise might fall by the wayside. The goal is not to be contrarian but to shed light.

The name Burt Bacharach may conjure associations for you or mean nothing, probably depending on your age and your level of interest in pop music. Bacharach's Wikipedia page will give you a rich sense of the man and his accomplishments. Here, suffice it to say that Bacharach, generally in collaboration with the lyricist Hal David, wrote such classics as Dionne Warwick's "Walk on By" and "Do You Know the Way to San Jose" and "I Say a Little Prayer" (also a hit for Aretha Franklin), Gene Pitney's "Twenty Four Hours from Tulsa," Jackie DeShannon's "What the World Needs Now Is Love," Tom Jones's "What's New Pussycat?," Dusty Springfield's "The Look of Love," Herb Alpert's "This Guy's in Love with You," B. J. Thomas's "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head," and the Carpenters' "(They Want to Be) Close to You." In the 1960s and '70s, these songs were ubiquitous, and Bacharach was a big deal, a media figure with a recognizable face. You '80s kids might recall Naked Eyes' new wave version of Bacharach's "(There's) Always Something There to Remind Me" (nope, they didn't write it, just as Soft Cell didn't write "Tainted Love"). You pop-music aficionados of all ages might know that Elvis Costello, who'd played Bacharach's "I Just Don't Know What to Do with Myself" live as early as 1978, collaborated with the man to create the album Painted from Memory in 1998.

The year before that, reportedly at the suggestion of his record label, Impulse!, McCoy Tyner recorded his versions of Bacharach classics. Of course, jazz musicians have always rendered pop-music standards, and Tyner was no stranger to the practice. Coltrane's version of that Sound of Music favorite "My Favorite Things" is a classic example of a familiar melody-at the time just two years old-being worked up and worked out into a deeply personal jazz instrumental.

Meanwhile, tribute albums, or albums devoted to a single composer, also have a long, rich history. For Tyner's project, one potentially helpful comparison is the saxophonist Joe Lovano's Celebrating Sinatra, released the year before Tyner's CD. Let's pause here and ponder, for context.

Lovano doesn't simply play tunes associated with the singer. Instead, he leads a fifteen-piece ensemble, sometimes including woodwinds. Weaving in and out of particular arrangements are lyrical fragments and scat syllables delivered by Lovano's wife, the jazz singer Judy Silvano. The result doesn't faithfully render pages from the Great American Songbook. The music takes chances, challenges you with its unconventional sonics. In spirit it honors Sinatra not as a crooner or a persona but as the adventurous recording artist who pioneered concept albums, collaborated with the composers/musicians Antonio Carlos Jobim and Duke Ellington, and conducted Tone Poems of Color (1956).

For some listeners, this concoction is too artsy; for others, it exemplifies what art can be: passionately, risk-takingly expressive. The jazz critic Scott Yanow's 4.5-out-of-5-star review at the Allmusic Guide makes the affirmative case, calling the album:

brilliant and inventive. . . . Rather than just play the tunes in conventional swing fashion, Lovano is featured in quite a few different settings, caressing and bending the melodies a la [saxophonist] Sonny Rollins. . . . Each performance has plenty of surprising moments. A real gem.
Agreed.

So, even if the Lovano album didn't reach a broad audience (even for jazz), a tribute album by Tyner made some sense. Still, why pay homage to Bacharach? No doubt partly because the material was so worthy, partly because the name would ring bells with listeners of a certain age, and partly because Bacharach was having a bit of a moment. In fact some reviews of Tyner's recording juxtaposed it with another product from 1997: In a seemingly different musical universe, the tribute collection Great Jewish Music: Burt Bacharach was produced by composer/saxophonist John Zorn and released on his own label, Tzadik. Sorry, folks, here's another detour on the way to San Jose.

With artists including guitarist Marc Ribot, accordionist Guy Klucevsek, and harpist Zeena Parkins-a kind of Who's Who of Downtown Manhattan experimental music of the time-the assemblage has a decided cool factor.

At his website Deconstruction in Music, Marcel Cobussen, a professor of auditory culture and music philosophy, highlights this album to celebrate "Zorn as someone who is quite difficult to stereotype" and Bacharach as "outside the [mainstream] tradition . . . within which he is located . . . a true subversive, a maverick who challenges the conventions of an entire generation of composers of popular music." In his liner notes to the collection, Zorn concurs: "Bacharach's songs explode the expectations of what a popular song is supposed to be. . . . Maddeningly complex, sometimes deceptively simple, these are more than just great pop songs: these are deep explorations of the materials of music and should be studied and treasured with as much care and diligence as we accord any great works of art."

For radical reinterpretations that posit Bacharach as a radical artist-some of those versions in a jazz vein, some wrapping the tunes in contexts their composer might not recognize-this volume of Zorn's Great Jewish Music series may be the way to go.

By contrast, Tyner's recording is relaxed, elegant, and sedate. The negative perspective on those qualities is expressed by the 2-star Allmusic Guide entry, the only review currently mentioned at the album's Wikipedia page. Again, the reviewer is Scott Yanow:

Unfortunately, the Tyner trio (with bassist Charlie McBride and drummer Lewis Nash) is accompanied by a huge string section and an orchestra given mostly surprisingly sappy and overly lush arrangements by John Clayton (who is capable of much better). The pianist treats each melody as if it were precious, and the overall results are rather schlocky. . . . A major disappointment.
In short, deconstruction in music it is not. But I read this comment and others like it-in the Chicago Tribune, Howard Reich likened the album to "easy-listening background music"-and don't believe my eyes. Was the reviewer listening to the same recording I am? Has that listener missed both the mastery and the essential strangeness of this construction, or am I hearing things? Although we tend to think of challenging music as confrontational, can't the challenge and therefore the invitation come in the form of something far less jagged? How can Yanow and I agree on the satisfying complexities of Lovano's Sinatra but not those of Tyner's Bacharach?

So, as I've done many times, I put on McCoy Tyner's tribute with open ears and an empty head, or at least an unguarded heart. I want to hear what it has to deliver. If I go in without expectations-about what Tyner does, what Bacharach does, what jazz is, what art means, what have you-then I won't be disappointed. By which I don't mean I'll like it. I don't like lots of things. But if I give it a chance, try to enter it on its terms, I increase the chances of liking it or pushing my boundaries in its direction. I have a context or series of contexts to place the music in, but I let context be background, past be prologue, "be be finale of seem" (as the poet Wallace Stevens put it in "The Emperor of Ice Cream").

The first thing I hear is a burst of strings, like a stately Broadway or Hollywood overture, touching on melodies to come. It's easy to imagine Coltrane fans being horrified. I hear West Side Story, maybe. I don't hear schlock, nor sap. Nowhere on this 9-track, 52-minute CD do I hear schmaltz. Once that word is in my mind because of its resemblance to "schlock," I listen for schmaltz, and some moments nod in its direction. Maybe. But charges of schlockiness, sappiness, and schmaltziness have been lodged against Bacharach's music ever since he started writing, and Bacharach put his seal of approval on What the World Needs Now. Indeed, in his New York Times review of the album, Ben Ratliff called it "too much Bacharach, not enough Tyner."

The strings descend, and a piano, recognizably Tyner's, accompanied by the rhythm section, delivers the deeply familiar melody of "Close to You." Would it be deeply familiar to you? It's a cultural touchstone, shorthand for "pop song" the way the duh-duh, duh-duh motif of the Jaws soundtrack is shorthand for terror. Or am I revealing my bias as a child of the '70s in being able to conjure a Bacharach melody at will?

If you're unfamiliar with even Bacharach's most famous songs, Tyner's interpretations of them might mean nothing to you. But let's assume you're reading this or listening to the CD because you're familiar with some of his music. If you want to hear a version of "What the World Needs Now" or "Alfie" at all, do you really want it to never articulate the song's signature melodic moments? "I really enjoy playing ballads like 'Alfie' and 'A House Is Not a Home,'" Tyner explains in his liner notes, "because those melodies are unbelievable . . . they bring out my romantic side!"

As the pianist works out, there's interplay between his trio and the orchestra, which has its own voice. As Tyner makes clear in his notes, the strings weren't foisted on him, and they were recorded live with the trio. He liked this delicate dance enough to stand and applaud the orchestra at the end of the sessions. For the listener, the combination presents a challenge. You may be able to sink in, but you may also find yourself parsing the relationship between the orchestral touches and the trio's renderings. The whole is mostly mellow but far from easy listening. Try playing it for someone who hears jazz as "music going nowhere." Where is this going? You need to follow it along byways. In fact, you often may not be sure what song they're playing at any particular moment.

Trio and strings build up steam on "Close to You," until a fade on Tyner's piano trail. Strings and horns return to introduce "What the World Needs Now." Tyner picks out the melody, then does exactly what jazz musicians have done since the form began: takes off on those notes into excursions that most of us would be hard pressed to identify as the basic melody. But Tyner does restate the start. Undeniably loungey piano fades out, then big band horns usher in "You'll Never Get to Heaven (If You Break My Heart)" and cascade back in at the end of some dazzling piano runs.

A minute and a half in, track 4, "Windows of the World," moves from understatedly funky to deeply moving when the piano hits the chorus. "One Less Bell to Answer" proves bluesy and ruminative. "A House Is Not a Home" is gently . . . You get the idea. You don't need me to pirouette around the architecture, encapsulating what happens in each portico.

Consider that track 7 begins with a cascade of strings that reminds me at once of the tornado scene in The Wizard of Oz and Gil Evans's work on Miles Davis's Sketches of Spain (1960). What is the relationship between that weird aural construction and the song "(There's) Always Something There to Remind Me," or between that bit and the album as a suite? The strings certainly signpost that we're not listening to Naked Eyes.

Consider the fact that at surprising moments in these songs Tyner swings, subtly. He doesn't lay down the chords in a solid, matte foundation, or pound the keys propulsively, as you might think of him as doing. But except for the orchestrations, his approach here doesn't strike me as different than on his soulful version of Jobim's "Once I Loved," on Tyner's album Trident (1975), to name just one example I happen to know.

Consider that the entire progression of What the World Needs Now builds to "Alfie" and then "The Look of Love," which is as passionate and beautiful as any version I've ever heard.

Remember that some jazz fans, even Coltrane devotees, have little or no use for the Coltrane Quartet's mellow and melodic side(s): Ballads (1962), John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman (1963), even My Favorite Things get dismissed. But all music, even all jazz, even all Coltrane albums, can't be A Love Supreme. ("There are different kinds of music for different moods," as a person once diplomatically put it to me after hearing this masterpiece for the first and possibly last time.) All music better not be the visionary, relentless noisefests that Coltrane issued subsequently, such as Meditations (1965) and Ascension (1966). "I didn't see myself making any contribution to that music," commented Tyner, who left the Quartet over Coltrane's move into atonal/free jazz. "I didn't have any feeling for the music, and when I don't have feelings, I don't play."

What the World Needs Now may not be anyone's imagined version of Tyner rendering Bacharach. Yet this rich production with a warm piano tone presents a wordless world where all is Bacharach. In a twisting hall of mirrors, the composer's familiar reflection appears in each glass. Fragments of his melodies serve as touch points in the fantasia. It's hard to imagine how, on its own terms, the recording could be a better blend of musicianship and composer.

Clearly, I trust my ears. By which I don't mean my taste is infallible. You'd loathe lots of things I love. I'll give a chance to just about any kind of sound made intentionally or by chance. I won't, however, take someone else's word for the merits of any particular sound, and neither should you. So if the descriptions here sound like your sort of thing, check out What the World Needs Now. Hear the whole thing. Don't dismiss it based on preconceptions.

If Tyner's recording doesn't appeal to you, but you're intrigued by the idea of Bacharach interpreted as jazz, you might seek out a real obscurity. One year after contributing a version of Bacharach's "I Say a Little Prayer" to Zorn's compilation, the jazz pianist and composer Marie McAuliffe included that track on her second and seemingly final full-length recording, Plays the Music of Burt Bacharach (Avant). Accompanied by her Ark Sextet, McAuliffe interprets 11 tunes in precisely the hard bop format you might have expected Tyner to employ. In fact, even her piano tone recalls Tyner's. Her arrangements present the familiar melodies, then take off into the soloists' excursions. Like her one other CD, Marie McAuliffe's Ark Sextet (Koch, 1996), which was all original pieces, this album is immaculate; it's loving and respectful yet adventurous.

So you have at least two kinds of Bacharach piano-focused jazz that I'm aware of (and for the sake of my sanity I'm not going down the rabbit hole of searching the Web for more). McCoy Tyner emphasizes a different side of himself in an uncharacteristic idiom. Marie McAuliffe expresses herself in an idiom characteristic of Tyner. Both of these recordings-if you know Bacharach, you knew this was coming, right?-need love, sweet love.

P.S. After finishing this piece, I discovered that in 1968 the jazz saxophonist Stan Getz released the heavily orchestrated tribute album What the World Needs Now: Stan Getz Plays Bacharach and David. It's a small world after all! But to my ears this recording is what people have accused the Tyner album of being: easy-listening schlock. By comparison, Tyner's What the World Needs Now sounds like John Zorn!



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