In March 2020, McCoy Tyner passed at age 81, leaving behind a vast legacy of powerful piano on record. Naturally, many of the obituaries focused on his 1960-65 time with John Coltrane, a relationship that revolutionized jazz and brought forth some of its very greatest LPs, including Crescent and A Love Supreme. From Tyner’s long list of albums as a leader, 1967’s The Real McCoy with Joe Henderson, Ron Carter, and Elvin Jones generally gets the nod, although each period has its glories, from the tidy early-’60s trios through the epic live-’70s ensembles to the later solo recitals and all-star collaborations.
Another prism through which one can observe Tyner’s artistry is his work as a sideman with leaders other than Coltrane. There are about 40 of these sessions, a sequence that documents Tyner’s evolution from a youthful musician comfortable with the mainstream to a predominant influence on the next generation.
The first is from 1959, The Curtis Fuller Sextette, a solid hard-bop outing with Benny Golson. Art Farmer would join Fuller and Golson for the Jazztet, and their first album for 1960, Meet the Jazztet, features Tyner on piano, who sounds inspired by Bud Powell, Ahmad Jamal, and Red Garland during his solos on “Avalon” and “Killer Joe.” The Jazztet was poised to be the next big thing, but they didn’t catch the breaks: Coltrane pinched their pianist and they opened at the Five Spot opposite Ornette Coleman, whose avant-garde sounds took over the discourse, instantly rendering the Jazztet’s hard-bop style old-fashioned, at least in the eyes of some musicians and critics.
The first youngblood Tyner entered the studios with was Freddie Hubbard, for three Blue Note albums in 1960 and 1961. Ready for Freddie is acclaimed as a classic, and includes his first meeting on record with Wayne Shorter, a youthful tenor well up on his Coltrane but also in the front rank of contemporary thought. On the fast blues “Birdlike,” the piano solo—while still brilliant—is less obviously futuristic than the breathtaking trumpet and tenor choruses.
Observing these proceedings with interest was Joe Henderson, another advanced saxophonist/composer who found a way to personalize the Coltrane influence in every direction. Between them, Coltrane, Shorter, and Henderson added in various kinds of static scale theory to augment the tension and release of the major/minor tonal system; they also specialized in diverse appropriation of ideas from Africa, Cuba, Spain, Japan, and India. Some of the most canonical Tyner performances (after Coltrane) are on Blue Note sessions with Shorter and Henderson from 1964. The roll call defies belief: Night Dreamer, JuJu, In ’n Out, and Inner Urge were recorded the same year as Coltrane’s Crescent and A Love Supreme.
By this point, Tyner had settled into a variegated set of quartal voicings that would permanently become part of the jazz lexicon. Still, he remained concerned with tradition, not at all aligned with those who dismissed hard bop as yesterday’s music. His 1963 trio album Nights of Ballads & Blues is almost a Red Garland-style easy listen, and that same year he joined the pure bebopper Sonny Stitt for Art Blakey’s A Jazz Message.
Like Stitt, Milt Jackson might be considered a conservative player. One of the more amazing stats from Tyner’s peak years of studio activity concerns December 9, 1964. In the morning he recorded with Jackson for In a New Setting. In the evening, he tracked A Love Supreme. (The night before, he had been recording his own album of Duke Ellington tributes!) When Tyner and Jackson play together, the percussive nature of the blues comes to the fore, as both vibes and piano chime in metallic yet charismatic fashion.
Another pleasing instrumental combination is with guitarist Grant Green. In this case, Tyner’s lush comping resembles an organ in a guitar/organ/drums trio. Indeed, both Tyner and Coltrane were influenced by organ avatar Jimmy Smith, and Green’s deeply swinging “My Favorite Things” from 1964 with Tyner and Elvin Jones (released 15 years later on the Matador album) offers an intriguing alternate history to one of the iconic Coltrane pieces.
Tyner was also heard on record with J.J. Johnson, Lee Morgan, Donald Byrd, Hank Mobley, Bobby Hutcherson, Lou Donaldson, and especially Stanley Turrentine, whose many LPs with Tyner embrace rock songs, boogaloo feels, and other groove concepts that would be so important to ’70s jazz.
In each case, the pianist was a proficient sideman, hooking up the varied aesthetics with taste and style. Still, the phenomenal piano solos are a big reason why any LP with Tyner is automatically that much more of a collectable. An especially notable cascade of creative fury graces “Fly Little Bird Fly” from Donald Byrd’s Mustang! (1967). In the liner notes, Byrd comments, “Listen to him on the track. He tears the song completely apart.”
Wayne Shorter: Speak No Evil (Blue Note, 1966) – Herbie Hancock takes over the Tyner chair for the third Shorter Blue Note LP. Apparently Hancock has said something to the effect of “I was just trying to imitate McCoy” on this date, although of course he still sounds like himself.
Bobby Hutcherson: Total Eclipse (Blue Note, 1969) – Chick Corea was the next star Tyner student after Hancock. One of the last of the freewheeling “inside/outside” Blue Notes of the era would be unthinkable without the McCoy template.
Freddie Hubbard and İlhan Mimaroğlu: Sing Me a Song of Songmy (Atlantic, 1971) – The young Kenny Barron played perfect bebop with Dizzy Gillespie but soon sought to incorporate a Tyner-derived modal aesthetic. This masterpiece of an album should be better known, especially at a time when jazz discourse has swung back around to embracing protest music. On “Interlude I” Barron takes the McCoy continuum past modality into something even more abstract.