McCoy Tyner performs at the 2010 Middelheim Jazz Festival
Photo: Peter Van Breukelen/Redferns
10 Essential Cuts From Jazz Piano Great McCoy Tyner
John Coltrane might not have scraped the heavens without McCoy Tyner there to tether him to terra firma. "My current pianist, McCoy Tyner, holds down the harmonies, and that allows me to forget them," Coltrane said in a 1961 interview. "He's sort of the one who gives me wings and lets me take off from the ground from time to time."
Tyner began playing with the former's John Coltrane Quartet in 1960, just as its leader slipped out of the binds of bebop and embraced modal jazz. But rather than focusing on coloring outside the lines, he chose to anchor the music with a 100-pound weight. With his mighty left hand, he gave Trane, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones a launchpad for explosive improvisations.
The jazz world now mourns its humble-yet-intrepid giant of the piano. Tyner died this week, Friday, March 6, of unknown causes, as reported by his nephew, Colby Tyner, to The New York Times. He was 81.
Born in Philadelphia, Tyner cut his teeth in the Jazztet with trumpeter Art Farmer, saxophonist Benny Golson and a revolving-door lineup of trombonists, bassists and drummers. In 1958, a year prior to joining that band, Coltrane recorded Tyner's composition, "The Believer," at Rudy Van Gelder Studios.
When the pair joined forces, the results were some of Coltrane's most memorable albums: 1961's Coltrane Jazz, My Favorite Things and Olé Coltrane; 1962's Coltrane Plays The Blues; and 1965's epochal A Love Supreme, the latter of which was nominated for Best Instrumental Jazz Performance - Small Group Or Soloist With Small Group and Best Original Jazz Composition at the 8th GRAMMY Awards, held in 1966.
After A Love Supreme, Coltrane began experimenting with bigger, more feverish free jazz ensembles. Tyner parted ways with him in 1965, but his story hardly ended there. As a solo artist and as a leader, he won five GRAMMYs, including Best Jazz Instrumental Performance for 1987's Blues for Coltrane: A Tribute to John Coltrane and 1995's Infinity as well as Best Jazz Instrumental Album for 2004's Illuminations. His post-Coltrane body of work proved his ability to play either delicately or maximally when the setting called for it.
To celebrate the legacy of the late Tyner, the Recording Academy is highlighting his 10 essential cuts — with or without Coltrane.
"My Favorite Things" (from John Coltrane's My Favorite Things, 1961)
This Sound Of Music tune began as a cutesy ode to kittens, mittens and kettles, until Coltrane doused it in kerosene and set it on fire. His later disembowelment of "My Favorite Things" aside, the 1961 studio version is the definitive take—an innovative Eastern vamp with a sense of spiritual joy. Over its 13-minute runtime, Tyner cycles Rodgers and Hammerstein's melody to the point of hypnosis. When the key change hits, the quartet takes flight like geese with the moon on their wings.
"Inception" (from Inception, 1962)
When Tyner didn't have Coltrane around, he often let his right hand take over for him. On Inception, his debut album with a trio, bassist Art Davis and drummer Elvin Jones mostly take a background role as Tyner displays breathtaking dexterity on the ivories. Despite the density of his lines, Tyner stays importantly light, breezy and tuneful on the title cut, even as he puts the pedal to the floor during his modal pontifications.
"Reaching Fourth" (from Reaching Fourth, 1963)
If Thelonious Monk was known for his major sevenths, Tyner's calling card was voicing chords in fourths—a technique that helped lay the foundation for contemporary jazz. "Fourth chords have a mysterious stasis, refusing to commit to major or minor," pianist Ethan Iverson explained in a 2018 essay about Tyner. To that end, the title track from 1963's Reaching Fourth, with bassist Henry Grimes and drummer Roy Haynes, is a fiery showcase for Tyner's favorite interval.
"Jinrikisha" (from Joe Henderson's Page One, 1963)
When it comes to clean and simple bossa-and-bop, Joe Henderson's debut Page One is hard to beat. Strangely, Tyner—due to a conflicting contract with Impulse!—was credited on the album art as "Etc." Despite not making the marquee with trumpeter Kenny Dorham, bassist Butch Warren and drummer Pete La Roca, Tyner delivers some of his subtlest, featheriest playing ever across the album, especially on the original "Jinrikisha," named after another word for a rickshaw.
"Pt. 1 — Acknowledgement" (from John Coltrane's A Love Supreme, 1965)
A Love Supreme is well-known as Coltrane's transformational statement, in which he escaped from drugs and alcohol and into the arms of his Creator. Despite his inventions, the results would be nearly unrecognizable without Tyner. His stabbed chords—again, fourths!—on "Pt. 1 — Acknowledgement" are the what-ifs, second-guesses and entrenched doubts intrinsic to any hero's journey. Meanwhile, Coltrane plays the role of Arjuna, slaying psychic monsters with his horn.
"Blues On The Corner" (from The Real McCoy, 1967)
Tyner continued playing with Henderson after Page One, joining him for Blue Note classics In 'n Out (1964) and Inner Urge (1966). The so-called "Phantom" returned the favor on The Real McCoy, a quartet date with bassist Ron Carter and drummer Elvin Jones that featured three of his signature songs: "Passion Dance," "Search For Peace" and "Blues On The Corner." The latter tune is the wittiest and best of them all, in which he stretches the titular form like taffy and reveals universes within.
"Song Of Happiness" (from Expansions, 1969)
One of Tyner's most cerebral works, Expansions features contributions from trumpeter Woody Shaw, tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter and alto saxophonist Gary Bartz; the latter two are also respectively credited on clarinet and wooden flute. At this stage, Tyner's playing had grown borderless and oceanic, and "Song of Happiness" shimmers like refracted light, with flutist Bartz merrily approximating birdsong.
"A Prayer For My Family" (from Sahara, 1972)
Tyner rang in the 1970s by signing to Orrin Keepnews' Milestone label and recording Sahara, a terrific African- and Japanese-inspired album in which he played the flute and koto. Transcultural voyaging aside, Sahara's center of gravity is "A Prayer For My Family," an impassioned work for solo piano that manages to be both trippily multidimensional and straight down the church aisle.
"Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit" (from Enlightenment, 1973)
Recorded at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland with saxophonist Azar Lawrence, bassist Juni Booth and drummer Alphonse Mouzon, the sprawling Enlightenment is firmly in former associate Coltrane's impassioned-seeker mode. Sitting through its 70 minutes can lead to brain melt, but the swaggering, ill-tempered closer, "Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit," makes this demanding trip worth it.
"Love Surrounds Us" (from Uptown/Downtown, 1989)
Tyner mostly stayed strong throughout the 1980s, a trying era for jazz. Despite occasionally dated era production, he made excellent work with his trio and his big band. Uptown/Downtown, recorded over two nights at the Blue Note in Manhattan, shows the latter in fighting form. Muscular, driving and exciting, "Love Surrounds Us" could have been recorded in any decade and proves that even in his third act, Tyner was formidable with or without his old boss Coltrane.