Song 290: McCoy Tyner, “The Surrey With The Fringe On Top” (1968)

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I would be the first person to admit that my taste in jazz isn’t particularly adventurous. I tend to favor the melodic and happy instead of the dissonant and dark. Case in point: McCoy Tyner’s version of “Surrey With the Fringe on Top.”

Which isn’t to say the song isn’t a worthwhile listen. You may recall that “Surrey” is from Oklahoma, and I wouldn’t personally call it Rodgers and Hammerstein’s finest hour. The lyrics in particular are so light they barely register: “Chicks and ducks and geese better scurry/When I take you out in the surrey/When I take you out in the surrey with the fringe on top.” And did I mention that it’s sung by a dude named Curly? It’s sung by a dude named Curly.

But in McCoy Tyner’s nimble hands, “Surrey With the Fringe On Top” becomes something else entirely. It’s still exciting and joyous, but it’s also twitchy and more than a little bit frantic, as if the invitation is coming from a guy with less-than-noble intentions. My favorite part happens around the 2-minute mark, when Tyner pounds out atonal chords like a distress signal (the theme returns, more unhinged, about a minute later).

I don’t think Tyner was out to mock “Surrey” or make it sound perverse. If anything, he added depth and layers of interesting conflict. What was once a bland invitation is now a panicked, almost vain begging for companionship. And that—and here’s where the perversion actually lies—is a lot more fun.

By the way, no offense intended to the great Rodgers and Hammerstein. They were geniuses, and I hope to write about them more hospitably soon.


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