Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

McCoy Tyner: Great Moments

McCoy Tyner
McCoy Tyner (photo: Carol Friedman)

As McCoy Tyner approached his 69th birthday on Dec. 11, he could look back with a profound sense of pride on an incredibly rich recorded legacy that includes over 80 albums as a leader with Blue Note, Milestone, Impulse!, Columbia, Telarc and other assorted labels, and at least a dozen timeless, hugely influential titles with the John Coltrane Quartet, including Crescent, Live at the Village Vanguard, Ballads, and A Love Supreme.

Add to that impressive list a whole string of important Blue Note sessions that Tyner made during the mid-1960s with the likes of Wayne Shorter (Juju, Night Dreamer, Soothsayer), Joe Henderson (Inner Urge, Page One, In ‘n’ Out), Grant Green (Matador, Solid), Lee Morgan (Tom Cat, Delightfulee), Hank Mobley (A Caddy for Daddy, Slice of the Top, Straight No Filter), Lou Donaldson (Lush Life, Sweet Slumber), and Freddie Hubbard (Open Sesame, Ready for Freddie), and you’ve got the résumé of a jazz legend.

While career retrospectives are generally reserved for retirement parties, Tyner is by no means ready to hang it up. On the contrary, there’s a flurry of activity surrounding Tyner these days. After 50 years as a working musician, he finally has his own imprint (McCoy Tyner Music, under the auspices of Half Note Records), which he launched in September with the release of Quartet. A live outing recorded on New Year’s Eve 2006 at Yoshi’s in Oakland, Calif., it features a potent crew of Joe Lovano on saxophone, Christian McBride on bass and Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums. On seven spirited tracks, Tyner demonstrates that he is still very much in command of his fabled technique, dropping in brawny left-hand statements while summoning up cascading right-hand flourishes on his preferred Steinway grand. It’s a quality that was evident on the Philadelphia native’s debut recording as a leader, 1962’s Inceptions.

In the liner notes to that Impulse! trio date with bassist Art Davis and drummer Elvin Jones, Coltrane assesses the pianist’s extraordinary gifts: “First there is his melodic inventiveness and along with that the clarity of his ideas. He also gets a very personal sound from his instrument. In addition, McCoy has an exceptionally well developed sense of form, both as a soloist and accompanist. Invariably, in our group, he will take a tune and build his own structure for it. He is always looking for the most personal way of expressing himself. And finally, McCoy has taste. He can take anything, no matter how weird, and make it sound beautiful.”

On Quartet, the pianist and his stellar sidemen revisit some Tyner classics like “Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit” (from 1973’s Enlightenment on Milestone), the hypnotic “Sama Layuca” (title track from a 1974 recording on Milestone) and three memorable numbers from his 1967 Blue Note landmark, The Real McCoy: the driving “Passion Dance,” the gentle “Search for Peace” and the earthy, buoyantly strutting “Blues on the Corner.” Says Tyner of that engagement at Yoshi’s with Lovano, McBride, and Watts, “These guys knew it was a special occasion, and they all really rose to the occasion. It was a wonderful thing to play with them because I know that they love the music and that they don’t take it for granted. It’s a lifetime ambition for them, and that means a lot to me to play with people who are so dedicated and committed to the music.”

Tyner adds that playing with Lovano was a special treat for him. “I like Joe as a person and he’s a wonderful musician. He’s a beautiful dude and he really loves to play, man! You know, I played with a lot of great tenor saxophone players: John Coltrane, Joe Henderson, among others. And there are certain guys like that who love playing so much that it reflects in their music. Joe is like that. You can tell … he’s embracing the horn when he’s playing. Joe loves playing, and his personality is reflected in his music. And that makes a difference to me.”

When it is pointed out how much Tain’s powerful, polyrhythmic, rolling over-the-barline style resembles Elvin Jones’ own approach on the kit, Tyner’s tone turns suddenly somber. “Well, I miss Elvin,” he says. “I miss all my friends who have left and gone on to the next dimension.”

True, so many of his colleagues have passed on. Tyner is the last surviving member of the classic Coltrane Quartet, and there are only a few left from Blue Note’s golden period. Tyner himself had a health scare a few years ago. Looking thin and frail, he cut back on his appearances. But he’s back at it again, slamming those fourths with authority and uplifting spirits with his vital keyboard attack.

Meanwhile, the pianist continues to explore with new friends like tap dancer Savion Glover (with whom he has performed duets at the Blue Note nightclub in New York), trumpeter Wallace Roney and trombonist Steve Turre (who accompanied the pianist on a septet tour last summer), or bassist Stanley Clarke and alto saxophonist Gary Bartz (both of whom played along with drummer Jack DeJohnette at a special McCoy Tyner All-Star Quartet performance in October at the Jazz Improv Convention in Manhattan).

“Those guys have played with me over the years so they know my style, they know what it’s supposed to sound like,” he says of Clarke (who played on the 2000 Telarc outing, McCoy Tyner with Stanley Clarke & Al Foster), Bartz (who played on Tyner’s 1970 Blue Note release Extensions, and also on 2004’s Grammy-winning album for Telarc Illuminations) and DeJohnette (who played with McCoy on 1977’s Supertrios on Milestone). “And I love ’em because they really have distinguished themselves on their instruments. You know, their personalities come through and you can tell they love it. It’s not an occupation, it’s a passion with them.”

Next up on Tyner’s label is a surprising studio recording (produced by John Snyder and scheduled for a May release) featuring an all-star cast of prominent cutting-edge guitarists, including Bill Frisell, John Scofield, Marc Ribot, Derek Trucks, and banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck, with Ron Carter and Jack DeJohnette holding down the rhythm. “Yeah, what can I say?” he chuckles. “It keeps some variety going on.”

In a bit of self-reflection, Tyner commented on 10 recordings from over the course of his illustrious career:

1. Art Farmer/Benny Golson: Meet the Jazztet (Argo, 1960)

This was my second session I ever played on [Meet the Jazztet was recorded on May 1, 1960, about four months after Tyner played on Curtis Fuller’s Savoy recording, Imagination, with Jimmy Garrison, Thad Jones, and Dave Bailey]. Prior to this session, I did a concert with Benny Golson around Philly and then he took me to San Francisco for a gig. Of course, Benny had been around. He played in Lionel Hampton’s band, Dizzy’s big band, and with the Jazz Messengers, so he was an experienced veteran and I was just 21 years old then. But he took a liking to me and after I made a few more gigs with him, he said, “Look, Art Farmer and I are gonna form a band and I’d like you to be in it.” So then I met Art and that was the beginning of the band. I think Art or [bassist] Addison [Farmer] came up with that Jazztet name.

For this recording we did tunes like Benny’s “I Remember Clifford” and “Blues March” and, of course, “Killer Joe,” which was a big hit at the time. In fact, you still hear that song on the radio today. It’s been covered by so many bands. But Benny did the narration on the original, which was funny because Benny wasn’t that kind of guy. He was a very educated cat and he sounded kind of scholarly when he delivered that narration about this hipster named Killer Joe. See, in Philly we had characters that fit the description of Killer Joe. We all experienced some of those rough guys in Philly, but that was part of the fabric of life back then. We had those characters and Benny depicted that perfectly on that tune.

Philly has some deep R&B roots. A lot of jazz guys, their experience came from that background. Benny Golson played in some of those kind of R&B bands. In fact, John [Coltrane] had done a lot of R&B gigs during the early days. He played in one group called Daisy Mae and the Hep Cats. Daisy Mae was a singer who was kind of popular around Philly. I never heard that particular band because that was a little before my time; I wasn’t of John’s generation, age-wise. But he went on the road with them before he went with Miles [in 1955]. And he walked the bar with his tenor, man! If you didn’t walk the bar in those bands, something was wrong. But you had to be careful, though. You had to make that jump between where the people were sitting at the bar and where the stage was. You actually had to make a leap from the stage. And if you fall, you keep playin’. So a lot of jazz guys played with certain bands like that because those guys had the gigs, man. They worked all the time. I played with an R&B band myself around town called the Houserockers, and on those gigs you’d see those kind of Killer Joe characters hanging out in the clubs. So I had my own tenure with that sound. That’s how you learn. Those are the roots of your jazz education. Blues are R&B … it’s all part of the roots, you know? I mean, if you don’t go for that, I don’t think you really understand how to get into the deeper things.

2. John Coltrane: Live at the Village Vanguard (Impulse!, 1961)

I think John liked playing at the Village Vanguard. We all did, actually, because [owner] Max [Gordon] was a special guy, he really was. Max would sit down there and listen to every set. And he’d even doze off a little bit, man. You’d catch him dozing off once in a while and think he was sleeping, but if you stopped playing a little early he’d be right there watching the clock. He was a wonderful guy, Max. He was really into the music and he kept that club in character. He never let that club become like an uptown kind of club. It was the Village Vanguard and it was legendary. And it had that vibe. When you walked in, you knew you were in a jazz club because the focus was on that stage. And there’s also something about the acoustics of that room that is very special. I don’t know if it’s the triangular shape of it or the low ceiling, but it’s a wonderful sound in there … very intimate. You’d sound like you were in your own living room when you were there. And Max allowed the music to happen. He was a brilliant man in his own way … very dedicated to the music, and I’m glad I had a chance to meet him and work in his place.

3. John Coltrane: Live at Newport ’63 (GRP/Impulse!; recorded 1963, released 1993)

That was a different experience for the band because Elvin couldn’t make it and Roy Haynes filled in on drums. Roy had a different feel from Elvin. Of course, I was partial to Elvin’s playing because I grew up playing with him, so to speak; I was so young when I joined John’s band. And Elvin and Jimmy connected so well. We all did, because the rhythm section was so tight. We were listening to each other, moving together. I was listening to what Elvin was doing rhythmically and Jimmy was in there doing his thing. I used to watch Jimmy’s face and he was totally locked into Elvin, and Elvin would be looking back at him with this look of love on his face. So that’s the thing about that band. It was just that tight. But bringing a different element into the group for that Newport gig was not a problem for us because Roy is a great drummer and a great musician. And he was so sensitive. He played with a lot of singers before … I think he played with Ella [Fitzgerald] for a while and also with Sarah [Vaughan]. So he was well rounded and he had a crisp sound … clean, clear. A lot of young guys today try to get that snap-crackle sound like Roy gets. He’s amazing but it’s a very different concept than Elvin. Those two guys really set a precedent on that instrument.

4. John Coltrane: A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1964)

Well, all of the records with John were stepping stones, in a sense. It’s hard to choose one over the other, but A Love Supreme was really a great, great record. Of course, the band had reached a very high level by that time and I think John was into spiritual meanings and stuff like that. He wanted to dig deep and bring us up to another level. And that’s what he did. So that was a testament to his level of development. [In an interview with author Ashley Kahn for A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album (Viking), Tyner explains, “John said very little about what he wanted … so it was basically an on-the-spot improvisation. It was actually songs, but the structure itself was very limited. A simple melody line, and not too stretched out. He’d write down the symbols to a set of very basic chords—B-flat, B-natural, E, just regular chords. And you could hear the relationship of the chords, how they were fitting with each other. … (You) could do what you wanted, keeping the form in mind. That’s what A Love Supreme was about.”]

5. The Real McCoy (Blue Note, 1967)

I think at the time I conceived the music for that album it was an important thing for me to make a personal statement. It was the first album I had done as a leader since leaving John’s band. And, of course, I worked with him for five years and we definitely had a deep connection. I learned so much from playing with him. He was like my teacher. And a lot of what I learned from him transferred to that recording. So I was sort of inspired when I wrote tunes like “Search for Peace” and “Passion Dance” and “Blues on the Corner.” Some songs, they sort of attach themselves to you, and those definitely did. I still play them. And I had some great guys with me on that date: Elvin, Joe Henderson, Ron Carter. You can’t lose with that lineup.

This was also my first recording for Blue Note. One thing I can say about that is, I really have to thank Frank Wolff and Alfred Lion for their dedication to Blue Note Records. They loved the music and they wanted to help preserve it in their own way. They were two cats from Germany who dug the music and they came over here and got their label together. I remember watching Alfred in the studio, man. He’d be snappin’ his fingers, his head would be rockin’ … you could just tell he loved the music. And if it wasn’t happening, he’d throw his arm up and snap his fingers and he’d say in that thick German accent, “It’s not schvinging!” Because he knew. In his heart I think he was a musician. He wasn’t trying to show how much he knew, he just had so much experience and he recorded so many great musicians that he knew when it was happening and when it wasn’t. I enjoyed knowing him.

6. Echoes of a Friend (Milestone, 1972)

This was a solo piano tribute album that reflected my experiences with my dear friend John. I did tunes like “Naima,” “The Promise,” and “My Favorite Things,” which of course are closely associated with the John Coltrane Quartet. Being with such a major teacher as John left such a permanent influence on me. See, I knew John when I was a teenager. That’s when I met him, when I was 17. He was with Miles when I met him [in 1956]. And we really got acquainted with each other when he left Miles’ band the first time [April 1957] and returned to Philly to live with his mother Alice. I used to go by there and play with John. She had an upright piano and we’d play together at his home. And he’d also come by to my place and play with me and we had some sessions. My piano was in my mother’s beauty shop … my mother was a beautician. So we used to have jam sessions at her beauty shop, having guys over from the neighborhood. They were kind of tough guys … they would throw out requests that they wanted to hear, and if you didn’t play ’em, look out! [Laughs]

But John came over and played a lot. He was 12 years older than me so he was like a big brother to me. And we’d make gigs together around Philly during that period. Cal Massey, who was a trumpeter and a composer, was a very good friend of John’s from North Philly, and I was in Cal’s band. So was [journeyman alto saxist Clarence “C” Sharpe] and Jimmy Garrison. There were quite a few guys around Philly in that band. So John and I became close during that period, before he went back with Miles. Then when he was getting ready to leave Miles’ band the second time [early 1960] he told me, “Look, I’m gonna leave Miles, I’m really gonna do it. And I want you to join my band.” [Tyner eventually did, in the summer of 1960. As Trane told Nat Hentoff for the liner notes to Live at the Village Vanguard, “I’ve known him a long time and I’ve always felt I wanted to play with him. Our ideas meet and blend. Working with McCoy is like wearing a nice fitting glove.”]

7. Fly With the Wind (Milestone, 1976)

I wanted to do something different, so that was a wonderful concept of doing something with the strings. That’s also why I had Ron [Carter] on there, because I knew he had such a great sound and his bowing was phenomenal. I wrote some arco things especially for him to play and I knew that he could handle them. He’s just so flexible. This guy goes in the studio and he can handle anything. And on other albums with him onboard, he really has stood out. He’s an amazing player. The title track got to be pretty popular, and I still hear it on the radio today. I play it at home too. I kind of like that tune. I don’t know, sometimes you go through stages in your life where songs really depict what you were going through at that time, and you hear it and you attach certain things to it. That was an interesting time in my life when I wrote that and recorded that, so that particular tune resonates with some special meaning for me.

8. Uptown/Downtown (Milestone, 1989)

I had done a lot of recordings with septets and sextets by this time, so I was kind of headed in that direction of doing a big-band project. There were a lot of people who wanted me to do it, including several musicians who had mentioned it to me at the time, so I thought, “Why don’t I go ahead and put one together?” So I tried to have the guys that I knew and respected, who I thought would do well together because I also knew we were going to tour together after the record came out. But I never tried to restrict things with the guys. They loved the band, but if they had some other things to do themselves, we got subs. I never try to inhibit anybody from doing their own thing. But this first big-band recording came out nice. [Three years later he did a second big-band recording, The Turning Point, for Verve.] We did some tunes of mine like “Blues for Basie” and “Uptown” and one by Steve Turre called “Lotus Flower.” And we also did “Love Surrounds Us Everywhere,” which Phyllis Hyman sang on an earlier record I did [1982’s Looking Out, Columbia]. She was one of the most-liked vocalists at the time. She definitely came out of an R&B thing, but she loved jazz. She was real tall, elegant … a beautiful girl. She was from Philadelphia, too. There’s that Philly connection again.

9. Manhattan Moods (Blue Note, 1993)

This was a duet project I did with Bobby Hutcherson, who has such a unique approach to his instrument. It was nice to do something intimate after having done several tours with a 15-piece big band. Again, this was something different for me. I didn’t want to sound like John’s band all the time. Even though I was with John for all that time and I loved what he was doing, I wanted to have my own identity and do my own thing. And that kind of encouraged me to come up with these different combinations of people and instrumentation, like this duet recording with Bobby. I remember we did some standards, like “Blue Monk” and “Soul Eyes.” And we also did two beautiful songs by Bobby, a 3/4 ballad [“Rosie”] and another one where he played marimba [“Isn’t This My Sound Around Me?”]. That’s another one I need to go back and listen to.

10. What the World Needs Now: The Music of Burt Bacharach (GRP, 1997)

This was a departure from what I normally do, but it’s another side of my personality that was very important for me to express. When you continue to do the same things it gets to be kind of a thing where people expect this from you and, consequently, you’re labeled and categorized. But I wanted to break out of that a little bit into something else and I thought maybe this orchestral project would be a pleasant departure. With such a large orchestra I don’t have to be as rambunctious as I normally am. They lay down a carpet for me and I just play on top.

This was actually [producer] Tommy LiPuma’s idea, and I was wide open to it. I thought there was a need for this kind of thing to happen in my career. I remember Tommy had a relationship with Burt, they were real tight. And I like Burt’s composing. The way he wrote his songs was different. He would make changes in places that I thought were very unusual. He would interject different time signatures and it would resolve at places that wouldn’t be considered normal according to the way other people wrote music. I’m surprised that no one had ever done a whole album of his music. He’s kind of a unique guy. He definitely stuck out, the way he wrote his music. A lot of his music is not what you’d call real intense or involved, but each piece had a little twist to it and little qualities that made it identifiable as a Burt Bacharach tune. And I thought it would be nice to pick some of his tunes to play in a different way, and John Clayton did some beautiful arrangements on pieces like “Close to You,” “Alfie” and “The Look of Love.”

I wanted to keep it simple and accentuate the sensitive, more romantic side of my personality because I do have that side of me that I’m very proud to admit. When we did the Ballads album, that was a reflection of John’s gentle side. Even though he was a stormtrooper when it came to some things, he wanted to show that he could also play those beautiful ballads. I’m doing the same here; it’s just that I have an orchestra behind me. Sometimes it’s good to do something different. John did that with “My Favorite Things,” and you’d be surprised how many people thought it was a form of compromise. But what we did with that song, I thought, was very, very interesting. Miles definitely did that throughout his career. He would try different things all the time; that’s what made him so unique. And he would treat it his own way, whether it was Porgy & Bess or “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top.” So I felt this was an opportunity for me to do something like that. [Bacharach himself gave his stamp of approval on Tyner’s interpretations of the material. As he stated for the album’s liner notes, “It is extremely flattering to have a brilliant keyboard artist and virtuoso like McCoy Tyner come and interpret a whole album of one’s music. His travels and voyages through my music are amazing. Thank you, McCoy Tyner, thank you.”]

Read Colin Fleming’s column on McCoy Tyner’s The Real McCoy. Originally Published