New York Jazz Workshop Remembers McCoy Tyner (1938-2020)
The New York Jazz Workshop’s CJ Shearn offers a reflection on the passing of jazz piano legend McCoy Tyner. Below are Shearn’s words.
The legends who have made significant contributions to this music within the linear historical narrative are leaving the earthly realm one by one. March 6th saw the passing of an absolute giant: McCoy Tyner. The groundbreaking piano titan passed away at home peacefully, leaving a legacy as vast as it was influential. My initial entry to Tyner’s work was at five or six years of age when my aunt got me the album Milestone Jazzstars In Concert (1978) my first exposure as well, to Sonny Rollins. I always loved this particular double album because I felt the group dynamic was very strong and it introduced me to Tyner’s inimitable walloping, but also subtle playing.
Tyner was born in Philadelphia on December 11, 1938. The house where he grew up was downstairs from his mother’s beauty salon and it was there from the age of 13 that the pianist developed his craft. In a heartwarming way, in a 1999 interview with Owen McNally that appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Mr. Tyner described a typical scenario at his mother’s salon:
“My mother’s customers would be patting their feet right next to my band’s baritone saxophone player, never missing a beat,” Tyner recalls, speaking by phone from his Manhattan apartment.
“My mother would walk into her shop–we lived over the parlor on the second floor–and say, ‘Wow, McCoy! You got a big band there! Go ahead and play!’ ” From early on, the environment he grew up in was conducive to honing his chops; studying both classical and jazz. Richie Powell, Bud Powell’s younger brother who was tragically killed in the same car wreck as Clifford Brown, lived around the corner, and Bud would frequently play at the family’s home.
In 1959, he joined Benny Golson’s Jazztet, and at a matinee bill he shared with Cal Massey, the legendary Philadelphia trumpeter and composer a chance meeting would be something that would define his career.:a chance meeting with John Coltrane. For five years from 1961-1965 in the classic John Coltrane Quartet, Tyner aided in the redefinition of what a jazz quartet was and could be. The quartet, first with Art Davis on bass, Reggie Workman and crystallizing with Jimmy Garrison, was a unit of indescribable energy, but also capable of wonderful subtlety as Plays The Blues, Ballads and the recent finds Both Directions At Once and Blue World demonstrated. It was Coltrane’s stripping down of “My Favorite Things” to find Eastern sonorities, that really showcased Tyner’s innovations. Though the use of perfect fourths and fifths had been in use prior to Tyner, the application in his playing was game changing. In his fingers, the fourth voicing achieved a pillowy character that was somehow massive, and the sudden slamming of fifths, also in the left hand just freed up the harmony in a unique way. His skittering diminished lines in the right hand suggested something other than a piano– something more like a guitar, harp or zither. Tyner’s application of this style of playing added so much to albums such as Juju by Wayne Shorter, Tom Cat by Lee Morgan, and Matador by Grant Green just to name a few. It would be foolish here to list a traditional career narrative here, but compositions such as “Passion Dance” from the landmark The Real McCoy (1967) are so fascinating for the mileage he gets from the F Mixolydian scale and the use of an Fsus4 chord underneath, nothing ever gets tired in his solo from the use of that one scale. The solo version on the Milestone album of the same name, recorded live in Japan makes intriguing comparative listening to how he approaches the melody, and alters the harmony.
As with a lot of his Milestone recordings, the pianist sought to increase the sound palette, as with his final Blue Note albums of 1968-1970. These albums, Cosmos, Expansions, Extensions, and Asante (unreleased until 1973) found Tyner using diverse instrumentation such as Wayne Shorter on tenor, (and his first instrument, clarinet), Gary Bartz’ alto, Herbie Lewis’ bass augmented by Ron Carter’s cello, Hubert Laws’ flute, and a string quartet among others. Tyner expanded the harmonic palette by employing these various colors, and taking cues from Indian and African music with some of the tunes. One of the most memorable aspects of the track “Vision” is the balance between the tonal and atonal, particularly on the bridge. Herbie Lewis holds down a vamp, while Carter goes on some surreal micro tonal flights. While this contrast may seem jarring to listeners only familiar with his work with Coltrane, the early Shorter Blue Notes, and vice versa, it showed how he moved forward to create new ground from the experiences that shaped John Coltrane’s music. From the Milestone period, Tyner carved his stake in the burgeoning so called “spiritual jazz” movement, the albums taking on Afrocentric ideals, and the sing song melodies of many pieces, like “Ebony Queen” and “Fly Like The Wind” were canvases for stirring modal improvisation. Tyner experimented further with instrumentation, such as his appearances on flute, koto and celeste, never quite approaching jazz-rock or jazz-funk, but recordings like the seminal Enlightenment (1973) and Atlantis (1975) bristle with an overwhelmingly intense rockish energy. “Valley Of Life”, from Sahara, his 1972 Milestone debut found him overdubbing koto, percussion and flute in his own idiosyncratic way, a meditative reflection long before “new age” was a category. To be fair, as a piece it is far more interesting than a lot of what comes out of that genre.
As a solo pianist, Tyner was simply superb. His sense of dynamics were incredible, like Cecil Taylor, truly treating the piano as a percussion instrument, yet at the same time demonstrating thorough grasp of the entire piano lineage from Earl “Fatha” Hines to the present. Milestone recordings as well as later period Blue Note, Impulse and Telarc offerings captured the massive dynamic range of his solo performances in a way his classic Blue Note albums do not, with their square mid range piano. As the pianist entered his later years, he pared down the frenetic energy of his right hand runs mixing in some chordal passages, never losing sight of the powerful fourths and fifths in the left hand.
The legacy of McCoy Tyner is one that will live on through the multitudes of pianists that followed in his footsteps. The Poetic Language of Jazz Improvisation taught by Marc Mommaas, at New York Jazz Workshop can give greater into Tyner’s innovations.