In late 1975, when jazz fusion was at its height, pianist McCoy Tyner approached producer Orrin Keepnews at Milestone Records about recording an album of mostly original compositions backed by strings. Tyner's vision wasn't for a laid-back syrupy affair but a robust, percussive date featuring 17 top-notch musicians. Four of the five compositions would be by Tyner as well as all of the arrangements.
As producer of Tyner's records for Milestone since Sahara in 1972, Keepnews liked the idea. Under marketplace pressure to deliver records that were as big in scope, concept and packaging as the glossy LPs being issued by CTI Records, Keepnews seized on the concept and began to plan the date.
Keepnews knew that Tyner's demanding vision needed highly skilled sidemen. But since the session would have to be held on the West Coast where Milestone and parent company Fantasy were based, Keepnews was concerned that he wouldn't be able to attract the right musicians and string players to San Francisco for the complex material Tyner had written. Keepnews also needed someone to conduct the large session. [Photo of Keepnews and Tyner courtesy of Milestone archives]
The sideman problem was solved by timing the date to when flutist Hubert Laws [pictured], drummer Billy Cobham and bassist Ron Carter would be appearing locally near the label's Berkeley, CA, studios. Several of the woodwind and string players were members of the San Francisco Symphony. Tyner brought in Bill Fischer, a friend and skilled conductor who worked with him on his 1973 album, Song of the New World.
On January 19, 20 and 21 1976, the musicians gathered and recorded Fly With the Wind, a jazz-fusion opus. At a time when multi-track recording was standard and overdubbing was an accepted method of layering sound with just a handful of musicians, Tyner insisted on forgoing the technology and trickery in favor of straight up playing. What you hear on the album is the work of the musicians performing simultaneously in the same studio, writes Keepnews in the re-issues liner notes.
As Keepnews points out, the result "qualifies unequivocally as a jazz album...it never loses contact with its basic jazz qualities." True enough. But it's a different sort of jazz, one heavily influenced by the muscular, showy music style gaining popularity with young listeners.
As readers of this blog know, I'm not a big fan of fusion. I find much of it to be long-winded, noisy and self-indulgent. For me, the fusion of the 1970s was largely a cold, disengaged genre created by theory-heavy music school graduates hoping to piggy back on the success of The Who, Pink Floyd, Yes, Santana and other instrument-driven concert-rock groups popular at the time.
Fly With the Wind is an exception. The 32-year-old album remains a fascinating
percussive work that holds up well, treating the strings and woodwinds not as mood setters but as an equal partner. Listen to the title track, Fly With the Wind, which rises continuously from plateau to plateau, supported by Cobham's [pictured] huge drum rolls and flavored by Laws' flute.
Salvadore de Samba has the feel of Chick Corea's Spain, while Beyond the Sun is a ballad that makes superb use of the harp, strings and flute. You Stepped Out of a Dream is the album's only standard, but given Tyner's [pictured] fascinating arrangement, you hardly recognize it. Instead, the composition comes off as a complex fusion reading. And dig Ron Carter's bass work!
Rolem closes out the album and again features big drumming, flute flashes and breakneck modal piano work. Carter's acoustic bass and solo on this track remains extraordinary and keeps the song relevant today.
When I reach for a fusion album, this one is it (along with a few others). As fusion goes, Fly With the Wind is a prime example of how inventive the genre could be without delivering a headache.
JazzWax tracks: Fly With the Wind is part of Concord Records' Keepnews Collection series of remastered recordings, and the sound is wide, dimensional and pristine. The remastering has managed to grasp all of the sounds recorded and lay them out in a way that lets you hear exactly what Tyner had in mind. There also are two bonus tracks—alternate takes of Beyond the Sun and Rolem. The Keepnews Collection release can be downloaded at Amazon here or purchased as a CD here.
Interestingly, Fly With the Wind's album cover mimics CTI Records' offerings of the period—a big nature shot (by Galen Rowell) on the front with the image "bleeding" (continuing) onto the back, where there's a small head shot of Tyner. Also, there were no liners notes on the back of the original album to remain in step with the minimalist packaging trend of the day, Keepnews writes, a decision the producer now wistfully regrets.