McCoy Tyner was a pianist whose influence can be heard across half a century.
In 1990, I was… Quite a bit younger. My musical tastes were relatively typical: I was into pop music, some hard rock stuff. I was a bass player so I was into the group Rush. I hadn’t yet discovered Earth, Wind and Fire. I thought I knew jazz because back in high school I’d played in the jazz band and sorta dug some big band recordings like Glen Miller and Count Basie.
Somehow there drifted into my CD collection an album of solo jazz piano by an artist that I’d never heard of. I ordered it from some place but to this day I don’t know why I bought McCoy Tyner’s 1988 album Revelations.
Tyner was born in Philadelphia in 1938. Like Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane and Miles, he was a
child of the Great Migration, a story we ought to talk more about. His parents moved from North Carolina to Philly shortly before he was born, and he began playing piano at age 13. In 1960 he joined saxophone player John Coltrane’s classic quartet, a group that made some of the most advanced creative music of the time. He played with Coltrane for five years.
In writing this I went back and listened to three of his albums—that first solo album of his that I bought; a 1962 album called Inception which has him leading his own trio for the first time; and then, that recently rediscovered Coltrane album that was released in 2018, but recorded in 1963. I was astonished anew at the richness of his playing in all these settings. He can play both heavy and light sometimes within just a few beats. He can sprinkle lightning fast runs in lyrical passages.
Beyond Coltrane he played and recorded with a who’s-who of jazz greats from Art Blakey to George Benson. His 1967 album, The Real McCoy, is regarded as perhaps his best as a combo leader. The producer of the album said it was remarkable for its purity. He said “there's a deep, passionate love for the music embedded in each of the selections.”
In 2002 the National Endowment for the Arts awarded Tyner a Jazz Master Fellowship, the nation’s highest honor for a jazz musician. New York Times critic Ben Ratliff said that “Nearly every jazz pianist since Mr. Tyner’s years with Coltrane has had to learn his lessons, whether they ultimately discarded them or not.”
Tyner once said that “Art is a wonderful way to express who we really are, and what we desire to be.” If you’re looking for some new music, pick up one of his records. He recorded his most recent album—a solo record—live in San Francisco in 2009. It was also his last.
The one and only McCoy Tyner died at his home in New Jersey a month ago today, leaving us with a wealth of wonderful music and remarkable playing. He was 81.