McCoy Tyner: The Intensity of a Jazz Original

The thrilling pianist made his name with John Coltrane in the Sixties — but kept exploring into the 21st century

By Bradley Bambarger<2020>

Few things are more important to a musician, especially in jazz, than developing an individual sound on his or her instrument, that quality of being recognizable to a listener in just a few notes. Pianist McCoy Tyner, who made his name in the iconic John Coltrane Quartet of 1962–65 and then pursued an ambitious solo career into the 21st century, created a sonic personality as identifiable as a fingerprint, one marked by both extraordinary physical command and keen conceptual acuity. Veteran saxophonist Joe Lovano, who played in some of Tyner’s last groups, recalls: “Even after facing some health issues later on, he would come back and be himself. I mean, he wouldn’t just play — he would be McCoy Tyner from the first notes, the first groove.”

Tyner, who passed away this past March, at age 81, had his own musical identity virtually from the get-go. In the liner notes to The Real McCoy, the pianist’s classic Blue Note album of 1967, Nat Hentoff quoted Coltrane extolling the pianist’s “melodic inventiveness,” with the saxophonist going on to emphasize that Tyner “gets a very personal sound from his instrument. McCoy doesn’t fall into conventional grooves, and he has taste. He can take anything, no matter how weird, and make it sound beautiful.”

Tyner’s sonority was characterized by big, open chords — often employing quartal harmony — that could ring like bells; it was a dramatic, often percussive style that also had a rich vein of bluesy lyricism. At the keyboard, he blended the volcanic with the rhapsodic; his left-hand could be bounding and thunderously resonant, even as his right hand was fleet with modal melodies. Tyner took conga lessons in his youth and closely observed a local musician from Ghana, seeding a lifelong interest in Latin and African sounds; he would sometimes pick up hand percussion at the piano during 1970s pieces like his Enlightenment Suite.

Pianist Ethan Iverson has written about Tyner’s sonic identity in an evocative way: “It is a private language of sound; it is bells and drums in a pre-colonial village; it is banging stones together at the first communal fire.” About the pianist’s influence, he adds: “Many students of Tyner — even ones with big careers — still play undigested bits of Tyner’s language. Tommy Flanagan and Barry Harris don’t really sound like Bud Powell; Steve Kuhn and Keith Jarrett don’t really sound like Bill Evans. But John Hicks, Harold Mabern, Ronnie Mathews, George Cables, Kenny Barron and a host of other great jazz pianists can have moments where they really sound like McCoy Tyner.”

For pianist Joey Calderazzo, a longtime member of the Branford Marsalis Quartet, the sheer intensity of Tyner’s playing led to a life-changing epiphany. “I was a big Led Zeppelin fan as a kid and was playing in a rock band when I first heard McCoy on a Coltrane record,” he says. “What McCoy was doing on the piano — with those stacked intervals of a fourth — sounded to me like the power chords that were so thrilling with Zeppelin. He and the Coltrane band were instrumentally burning — they seemed like kindred spirits to the rock I loved. Honestly, if it weren’t for McCoy, I probably wouldn’t be playing jazz today.”

Echoing Iverson, Calderazzo calls Tyner “unique among the big four players who came out of his era — Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea being the others. You can listen to Herbie and realize that he checked out Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly, as well as the music of Debussy and Ravel. But McCoy invented a language at the piano that was his own. He revered Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, but he didn’t sound like them. And McCoy’s influence was immense, inescapable. You listen to subsequent pianists — Danilo Perez, Renée Rosnes, Dave Kikoski, Bruce Barth, Geoff Keezer — they all took a lot from McCoy. Some great players of the next generation, especially Benito Gonzalez and Luis Perdomo, have kept carrying the torch for that McCoy sound.”

Philly Roots

Tyner was born and raised in Philadelphia, one of the richest environs for jazz talent in the post-war era, the town that nurtured such figures as organist Jimmy Smith, drummer Philly Joe Jones, trumpeter Lee Morgan, saxophonist Benny Golson and pianists Ray Bryant, Bobby Timmons and Richie Powell, who lived near the Tyner family home. Richie’s big brother was bebop innovator Bud Powell, Tyner’s pianistic lodestar. In an early interview, Tyner recalled: “Bud Powell and his brother were staying just around the corner from me in Philadelphia, but they didn’t have a piano in their apartment, so Bud came to my mother’s place to play… I learned a lot from him and his brother Richard. They were profound musicians, harmonically and in many other ways. Bud had so much taste and creative ability that I couldn’t help learning from him.”

Coltrane — who was a dozen years older than Tyner — moved to Philadelphia from North Carolina (where the pianist’s music-loving parents were from, too). The beauty shop where Tyner’s mother worked — and kept her son’s piano — became a space for local players to rehearse and jam, an ideal place for the young Tyner to learn. When he was 17, Tyner met Coltrane, who eventually came over to join in the jam sessions. Their friendship led to Coltrane recording, in 1958, one of Tyner’s early compositions: “The Believer,” a long, strolling blues waltz. After a stint in Golson’s Jazztet, Tyner started playing with Coltrane formally — including recording in 1960 on My Favorite Things, the saxophonist’s breakthrough album for Atlantic; the title track was a radio hit the next year, leading to Tyner’s cascading piano being heard all across the country. He was just 23.

In an interview with The Guardian in 1994, Tyner said: “Coltrane and I grew up in a period when you were supposed to try to be different, not copy someone else.” Orrin Evans, pianist of trio The Bad Plus as well as leader of the Captain Black Big Band, also hails from Philadelphia. He underscores the geographic element of Tyner’s statement: “This town has a long history of musicians who are individuals — Philadelphia has always had a patience for them, letting them be who they need to be. From Bobby Timmons, Shirley Scott and the Heath Brothers to Kenny Barron, Joey DeFrancesco and Christian McBride, the list of jazz originals from here is long. I’ve always thought that this Philly attitude shapes not only your playing, but also your view of the world.”

The classic Coltrane Quartet — which also included bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones — became one of the defining bands in jazz history, with a questing sequence of albums for Impulse that sound as modern and moving now as when they were made. Two recent archival releases capture the band at its peak, taped at the Rudy Van Gelder Studio in New Jersey, the hallowed site of the quartet’s most revered recordings. The music for the double-disc Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album was taped on March 6, 1963 (just a day before the band’s session for John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, a sublime collaboration with the dulcet vocalist). Coltrane ended up leaving virtually all of the Both Directions tracks in the can, soon pursuing a different muse; yet they reveal the band rocking in the vintage manner, with Tyner’s characteristically quicksilver solos in three takes of “Untitled Original 11386” particular highlights for him on that day. When Impulse/Universal finally released Both Directions at Once in 2018, the album topped the jazz charts.

The other archival release, Blue World, released in 2019, came from long-neglected tapes that Coltrane, Tyner, Garrison and Jones made to score an obscure Canadian art film (Le chat dans le sac). Cut in 1964 — the same year the band recorded Crescent and A Love Supreme, two of Coltrane’s greatest LPs — Blue World presents renditions of material that saxophonist had first recorded with previous groups; the album is bookended with new, bold-strokes versions of signature Coltrane ballad “Naima,” and the initial take includes an extended Tyner solo, which — apt for a pianist in a road-honed working band — sounds more ardent and nightclub-oriented than the poetically inward, even diaphanous solo by Wynton Kelly in the tune’s original 1959 Atlantic recording.

“What hit me when I first heard McCoy was the sweat and the freedom in his playing, the sense of abandon, especially in the live recordings from Birdland and the Village Vanguard,” Evans says. “All those guys in the Coltrane band were playing like it was the last time they would ever play — the intensity of those long solo flights, the sheer desire they had to perform. Something to keep in mind about the time when he came up was that it was the Civil Rights Era — and you can hear that spiritual fervor in the music. You hear the church in his playing, the strength as well as the healing quality, healing from drug abuse, from the racial struggle. Later, I came to appreciate the orchestration of McCoy at the piano, from the top of the instrument to the bottom. Even solo, there was a whole band in McCoy’s playing.”

His Own Man

While Tyner was playing in Coltrane’s group, he also recorded a batch of LPs as a leader for Impulse that were in a different mood; he was taking a break from the modal, ultra-passionate world of the quartet to record standards and lyrical originals, often in a trio format. He also recorded frequently as a sideman for Blue Note during that period, appearing on cream-of-the-crop albums by Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter, Grant Green, Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine, Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan and Bobby Hutcherson. Although they remained friends until the saxophonist’s death in 1967, Tyner left Coltrane’s band after the saxophonist ventured into the furthest reaches of the avant-garde and expanded the group, leaving less room for the pianist’s role. On his own as a leader, Tyner made not only The Real McCoy for Blue Note — a quartet album that included “Passion Dance,” “Search for Peace,” “Contemplation,” and “Blues on the Corner,” key compositions that he would reinterpret repeatedly over the decades — but also such exotically textured albums as Extensions (which featured on harp Alice Coltrane, who took over the piano chair in her husband’s band once Tyner departed).

After enduring the hard times that afflicted jazz in the late ’60s, Tyner bounced back over the next decade with a nearly 20-album tenure on the Milestone label. Creatively restless, he produced a catalog that ranged from powerhouse small bands to elaborately arranged large ensembles. In 1972, Tyner recorded a deeply felt solo tribute to Coltrane, Echoes of a Friend. Other highlights from this era included the 1977 double album Supertrios, which matched him with two top-flight bass-drum duos, on one LP with Ron Carter and Tony Williams and on the other with Eddie Gomez and Jack DeJohnette; one of that set’s thrillers is the pianist’s bright, buoyant original “The Greeting.”

Pianist Frank Kimbrough, who teaches at the Juilliard School, recalls his encounter with Tyner during this period. “The first time I saw McCoy play was when I was studying for a while at Arizona State, and he was headlining a jazz festival out in the desert,” he says. “My guys at the time were Herbie, Chick, Keith — and McCoy. For a young person, the energy of those McCoy records was dazzling. I mean, he played a lot of notes — and the density was part of the attraction. His language was more recognizably modern than swing or bebop. But experiencing McCoy in 3-D, man, that was really powerful — eye-opening, ear-opening. When he raised his arms up, you knew something was coming down. He was a badass, no other way to put it.”

For his students at Juilliard, Kimbrough plays a video filmed at the Montreux Jazz Festival performances from 1973 that made up Tyner’s Enlightenment album, featuring Azar Lawrence on saxophone, Joony Booth on bass and Alphonze Mouton on drums — a young, hungry band. “I teach a class for rhythm-section players, and when I show that video, I can see their mouths agape at the intensity,” Kimbrough says. “With some of McCoy’s solos, you can barely see his hands move — the cameras of the time couldn’t pick up the velocity. When you see what he had to bring to the instrument to make that sound, it makes a real impression. The positive energy that McCoy and his group were putting out, the will they had to grab people — young people of any era will respond to that.”

Like Kimbrough, pianist Angelica Sanchez is a fan of Enlightenment: “That record is one of my favorites for the way he combined power, clarity and flow of line all at once — my ideal as a jazz pianist. And if you watch the video of that concert on YouTube, you can also witness what an inspiring bandleader can achieve. You see how connected everyone is on the bandstand, so that when they all lift off together, it’s like astral travel. He said in the liner notes to the album that he thought it was one of his best performances, and you can see why. McCoy didn’t just play with power but also with a beautiful sound. It was crisp and clear, articulating his ideas on the instrument with such precision. Listening to him showed me how you could play with clarity even in a roiling band situation, with a million ideas flying all around you. And he was always melodic even when playing at a raging tempo.”

Guiding Spirit

If Tyner’s recorded performances are a font of lessons, he could also be a spirit-bolstering mentor for younger players who worked with him. Cuban-born drummer Francisco Mela, who played in the pianist’s final trio starting in 2009, says: “I learned that Elvin Jones was actually McCoy’s guide in the Coltrane quartet, because John didn’t speak much — he led by example. Elvin was the big brother who showed him how things were supposed to go, talked him through it. For me, McCoy became my musical father figure. He would say, ‘I want you to know the codes of this music, the things I learned in the Coltrane band, those accents I learned from Elvin.’ The reason I play free, avant-garde music today is because of my experience in McCoy’s group, especially one night in Japan, on one of our first tours. The great drummer Lewis Nash was in the audience — he had played a lot with McCoy — and that made me nervous. I was uptight and not playing well. McCoy was frustrated, and he said at the break: ‘What’s wrong, Mela?’ I said, ‘I’m sorry. You should be playing with Lewis, a real American drummer.’ But he was, like, ‘No, no, I want Francisco Mela — I want that Cuban thing you bring. We will find a way to play well together. You just have to be yourself, be free. Remember, we play music to free our souls.’ It sounds simple now, but that was a revelation to me.”

In the 1980s, Tyner toured and recorded regularly, though he bounced from label to label, often smaller indies. A creative resurgence included a return to Blue Note in the ’90s that produced a duo album with an old friend, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson (Manhattan Moods); another turn with Impulse yielded an alluring trio album devoted to Coltrane-associated tunes recorded live at the Village Vanguard. The pianist’s extended run with the Telarc label around the turn of the century produced Land of Giants, a quartet album featuring Hutcherson, as well as a recording with the pianist’s Latin All-Stars nonet. “McCoy was always interested in Brazilian and Cuban percussion,” Mela explains. “He was deep inside Latin rhythms, loved them. We played those pieces of his like ‘Sama Layuca,’ and they would sound so great. When we were in town, the best drummers would be in the audience — Lewis Nash, Louis Hayes, Roy Haynes, Jeff Watts, Marcus Gilmore, all those guys. They knew he was a master of the groove.”

In 2002, Tyner was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts, and he toured the world with the band that recorded Land of Giants. Reviewing one of those shows, UK critic John Fordham underscored the pianist’s enduring vitality: “In my 50-odd years of listening to jazz, Tyner’s 2002 concert at the Barbican, in London, with vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, bassist Charnett Moffett and drummer Eric Harland, stands out for its incredible mix of headlong momentum, ritualistic insistence and elegant lyricism, along with the characteristically meditative ferocity of Tyner’s solos.”

Joe Lovano played with Tyner in many settings over his last two decades, including such special occasions as the memorial service for Hutcherson. Lovano also features on the live Tyner album Quartet (Half Note), recorded in 2006 at Yoshi’s in Oakland, with bassist Christian McBride and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts. “Growing up, I lived and breathed not only those Coltrane LPs but also the Blue Note records he played on with Wayne Shorter and Joe Henderson, as well as McCoy’s own albums. When we made that live date at Yoshi’s, three tunes from The Real McCoy were included, along with his later chant-like pieces ‘Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit’ and ‘Sama Layuca.’ When you play the music with the composer, it’s a completely different experience — the feeling of those tunes really hits you. He didn’t hand you a sheet of music, either. He would just start playing, and you had to get with it — he was of that school. We would play maybe just four or five tunes in an hourlong or even a 90-minute set. The concentrated focus and dynamic energy would be so strong that the band would hit these plateaus of sound — but just when you got there, it would start to heighten again, and again. He elevated every set to another plane, feeding off of everyone else, always generous.

“But just traveling with McCoy was great, too,” Lovano adds. “He was a soulful guy. He lived within his history in a cool way, talking about Coltrane and the cats he knew back in Philly as if they were very much still with us — they really were still with him, in a sense. He carried all the vibrations of the people and music he had known around with him. When he told stories, there would be little details that made you feel like you were there. He wrote ‘Blues on the Corner’ inspired by the neighborhood characters in Philly who would always be drinking wine on the street corner. He talked about Bud Powell and hanging with Lee Morgan or Jimmy Heath. Seeing him interact with Bobby Hutcherson was a treat — they had such a bond. Or with Hank Jones — McCoy looked up to him as a pianist just like, say, Cyrus Chestnut looked up to him, with reverence. That was a joy to see.”

Tyner kept exploring in his last years, even though he could have rested on his considerable laurels. In 2008, he recorded Guitars, a wide-ranging album of encounters with players from John Scofield and Bill Frisell to Marc Ribot and Derek Trucks, even banjoist Bela Fleck. Tyner, in those notes for The Real McCoy some 40 years before Guitars, had told Hentoff: “To me, living and music are all the same thing. I keep finding out more about music as I learn more about myself, my environment, about all kinds of different things in life. I play what I live.”

(This story was originally published in autumn 2020 issue of the Steinway Owners Magazine.)

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