McCoy Tyner: 1938 – 2020

McCoy Tyner: 1938 – 2020

The thunderous sound and powerful attack that made McCoy Tyner one of the most influential pianists in modern jazz will resonate long after his death at age 81 on March 6, 2020. While his legacy will forever be linked with the essential role he played in John Coltrane’s unparalleled Classic Quartet of the 1960s, Tyner also enjoyed a long solo career that included more than 80 albums as a leader and garnered five Grammy Awards.

Born Alfred McCoy Tyner on Dec. 11, 1938, he practiced the piano in his mother’s West Philadelphia beauty shop, honing his natural left-handedness into a trademark percussive rumble. After recording with the Jazztet, co-led by Benny Golson and Art Farmer, the 21-year-old Tyner was enlisted by Coltrane to join the saxophonist’s new quartet with drummer Elvin Jones and, eventually, bassist Jimmy Garrison. That band quickly became one of the most revered units in the music’s history, a status it holds to this day. At the same time, Tyner graced a number of landmark Blue Note albums by the likes of Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan and Grant Green.

After recording a remarkable string of now-classic albums including A Love Supreme, Impressions and Crescent, Tyner left Coltrane to embark on a career as a bandleader, resulting in a prolific decade-and-a-half of releases via the Blue Note and Milestone labels. During the 1980s he largely split his focus between his big band and a new trio with bassist Avery Sharpe and drummer Louis Hayes (later Aaron Scott). Tyner was honored as an NEA Jazz Master in 2002; shortly thereafter, he founded his own McCoy Tyner Music imprint to release his final albums, including a series of encounters with guitarists and a live solo date. Below are crucial tracks that showcase Tyner’s indelible sound.

“My Favorite Things”
John Coltrane
My Favorite Things (Atlantic, 1961)

Coltrane’s audacious choice of this chipper Rodgers and Hammerstein confection from The Sound of Music famously transformed the song into a showcase for his exploratory modal innovations and sinuous soprano sax lines. But it’s Tyner’s reverberant, mesmerizing chords that set the stage for the quartet’s expansive reimagining of the innocuous original. Both Trane and Tyner stretch out over a waltzing vamp, the pianist cycling through a series of tautly focused repetitions that become as ecstatic as they are minimalist, conjuring a trance-like air of concentration.

Wayne Shorter
Juju (Blue Note, 1964)

The impact of the Coltrane Quartet’s innovations can be vividly heard on 1964’s Juju, the fifth album by saxophonist Wayne Shorter, then in the midst of his membership in the era’s other iconic band, Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet. The title track allows Shorter’s restlessly questing tenor to ride the turbulent surge and crash of the Tyner-Jones tandem, here teamed with bassist Reggie Workman. On his opening solo, the pianist nimbly navigates the tune’s off-kilter turns, needling into its dark corners with a barrage of pointed flurries.

“Passion Dance”
The Real McCoy (Blue Note, 1967)

Following his departure from the Coltrane Quartet, Tyner made his Blue Note leader debut with 1967’s The Real McCoy. The album’s frenetic opener, “Passion Dance,” is instigated by a volleying barrage from Elvin Jones, before Tyner introduces a memorable theme wholly his own: a hypnotic, keen but lilting melody tethered to deep, clamorous chords. The pianist’s transportive solo turn is feverish and unrelenting, sweating its way to a higher plane with the insistent punctuation of his left hand hammering at the back of the brain.

“Song of Happiness”
Expansions (Blue Note, 1970)

Tyner was justly renowned for his ability to rain torrents, but this piece, from 1970’s brilliant Expansions, opens with the pianist at his most gossamer. Those evocative few moments explore a dense, exotic landscape with the aid of Shorter’s clarinet and Gary Bartz’s wooden flute. Tyner then spends nearly half of the track’s 12 minutes obsessively unraveling the thorny questions posed by its majestic fanfare.

“Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit”
Enlightenment (Milestone, 1973)

This simple, infectious melody would become a staple of Tyner’s concerts for the remainder of his life, so it’s only fitting that it made its debut on a live recording. Enlightenment captures the pianist with his quartet — saxophonist Azar Lawrence, bassist Juini Booth and drummer Alphonse Mouzon — at the 1973 Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. Stretching out over 24 minutes, the buoyant piece never loses its optimistic ferocity, with the leader summoning an increasingly violent roar from the crash of his blistering runs into tremorous chords.

Shaun Brady is a Philadelphia-based journalist who covers an eclectic array of arts, culture and travel. He contributes regularly to the Philadelphia Inquirer and JazzTimes and Jazziz magazines, and has written for NPR Music, the A.V. Club, DownBeat and Metro, among other outlets.

Image credit: Rovi

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