If you came of musical age on rock & roll, as I did, and you then turned to jazz, chances are as high as a Dizzy Gillespie trumpet note that you commenced your new odyssey with John Coltrane’s Quartet.
Rock & roll adherents are drawn to the allure of the 1960s and also to edge, which made Trane’s unit perfect. Collectively they pushed the envelope so far that it would have flown right off any table in the land, sans the centering piano work of McCoy Tyner. It follows, then, that he was the first pianist many future jazz buffs looked to as their own, the comping, able boatman of sometimes Stygian waters, for it’s not as though Coltrane was the world’s easiest listen. We might even say that the late McCoy Tyner helped sugar the pill.
Free jazz’s foremost complementary player, Tyner played just as many notes as a human fusillade like Art Tatum did decades before, but unlike the other great maximalists, he played to serve, often by way of foil for Trane’s extreme muscularity. In the Quartet, Trane was brawn—cerebral brawn, if you’ll accept such a seeming contradiction—whereas Tyner was the guiding touch. He was the keeper of the tonal center, the master of the key, and the stabilizing root of the chord to which Trane, drummer Elvin Jones, and even bassist Jimmy Garrison (who’d often wander far afield himself) could return to. In motel terms, it was Tyner who kept the light on for everyone.
What is almost always overlooked in his legacy are the records he cut as leader. The Coltrane musical personality was so dominant, so beefily alpha, that any partner would feel at least slightly secondary—even Eric Dolphy, who might have had more imagination than Trane himself—which fosters the fallacy that you really didn’t have to pay much attention to Tyner on his own. But his 1967 Blue Note debut date The Real McCoy—and one imagines a piano lick of defiance and assertion under the adjective of the title—was his ultimate disabuser of those lazy “eh, he’s just Trane’s guy” notions. McCoy could flat out bring it, Trane or no Trane.
There is even defiance in the lineup. Jones is present, now that the Coltrane unit has dissolved—with Ron Carter stepping in from Miles Davis’s Second Great Quintet on bass and Joe Henderson on tenor. The latter could do free work, but he could also settle into a Hank Mobley-esque soul groove, and it’s obvious that Tyner wanted him to explore both roles more or less simultaneously, as if his very style had gone bitonal. “Passion Dance” is straight-up trance raga via the American Southwest, unlike anything in jazz to that point. These are the inner fires of Andrew Hill, but they have the swing of Basie, with some of the underpinning block chords of the post-stride era. Henderson keeps the dance aflame, while Tyner’s playing suggests the ripped muscularity of a Nijinsky, but also the finesse, the grace.
The latter quality is in even greater abundance on “Search for Peace,” which puts me in mind of Trane’s “Alabama,” a dialogic exercise of the internal voice made audible, which is perhaps what the best jazz—or the most readily contemplative—aspires to. A set from a couple years prior called McCoy Tyner Plays Ellington suggested the pianist’s debt to the Duke, but that debt had less to do with Ellington’s stylings as a player and more with the voicings of his orchestra. Tyner played as a man who thought in terms of choric voices for multiple instruments. Which sounds like another oxymoron, but jazz is always a vocal medium, even when no actual singers are involved.
There’s a feeling of Ellington charts coming to Civil Rights Era life in “Blues on the Corner,” a song that Tyner said he wrote as a paeanic throwback to his days of jiving and shooting the shit with his buddies on Philadelphia stoops. We’re not talking about a mere annex to a cathedral here like, say, a George Harrison solo record can be thought of in relationship to the Beatles discography, but rather a document that, had Trane authored it, we’d cite as a firmament LP.
Many listeners like myself may have first discovered McCoy Tyner through one of the finest musical performing entities this country has produced, but the contrapuntal élan of Tyner’s voicings is what helped give Coltrane his voice. And The Real McCoy is the perfect record to speak on behalf of the man himself, through a voice with 10 fingers. Max notes, max traction, max radiance.