McCoy Tyner: pianist supreme
One of the greatest pianists in the history of jazz, a member of the John Coltrane quartet, passed away on March 6th 2020.
In English, the expression the real McCoy refers to something or someone for whom it is said that they are "serious, not just a pale imitation, THE real thing!". The Real McCoy is also the title of McCoy Tyner's seventh album released in 1967, his first for the Blue Note label. It's one of the greatest records by the man who died on March 6, 2020 at the age of 81. And McCoy Tyner certainly was the real thing!
The Philadelphia native born in 1938 was first and foremost labelled ‘John Coltrane's pianist’. Truthfully, Coltrane was also "McCoy's saxophonist". Aware of this label, Trane knew of the pianist's importance when he declared in 1961 that McCoy had given him wings and allowed him to fly away, managing the harmonies. When you look at the size of his discography (over 80 albums to his name!), you realise the full scale of this eclectic musician who didn’t stop moving at 100mph. Case in point: Passion Dance, the opener to The Real McCoy, a tidal wave of rhythm (that left hand!) that is carried by an overwhelming sense of melodic line.
Recorded with Atlantic then with Impulse!, the unavoidable Coltrane years did only last between 1960 and 1965 but were more than seminal. Even on masterpieces like My Favorite Things or A Love Supreme, McCoy Tyner’s playing counterbalances each one of the saxophonist’s phrases. The rhythm composed by Elvin Jones on drums and Jimmy Garrison on the bass is also interwoven with the musical torrent. McCoy Tyner said during an NPR interview that “ John had a very wonderful way of being flexible with the music, flexing it, stretching it. You know, we reflected that kind of thing. He gave us the freedom to do that. We thought of something, 'Oh, then we'll play it,' you know? And he said, 'Yeah, I have a feeling'--you know? And all that freedom just came together when we did A Love Supreme.”
Two years earlier, in 1962, McCoy Tyner had released Inception, his first solo album with the Impulse! label with Elvin Jones and double bassist Art Davis. Even with this early work, Tyner’s unique modernity was plain to see, as was his skill for writing, having penned four out of six of the themes on the album. When he wasn’t recording with Coltrane, he took advantage of every moment of his spare time to develop his solo career by recording as many albums as possible. The link with the saxophonist was cut for good in late 1965 when Tyner began leaning more and more in the experimental, free side. “When he started playing with two drummers, I couldn’t even hear myself play anymore”, he said…
During the 60s, the originality of his piano playing enchanted other colleagues from Blue Note who invited him to play on their albums, including Joe Henderson on Page One (1963), Wayne Shorter on Juju (1964), Grant Green on Matador (1964), Hank Mobley on A Caddy for Daddy (1965) and Bobby Hutcherson on Stick Up! (1968). In 1966 and 1967, he went on tour with Art Blakey and signed with Blue Note for whom he would record for five years. Although the quality remained excellent, this didn’t necessarily translate to success. In 1972, McCoy Tyner decided to change label and arrived at Milestone, a label that he would collaborate with until the early 80s. Big ensembles, smaller formations, with and without strings, big bands, solo work: he tried his hand at everything with this new label.
Unlike most of his fellow jazzmen in the 1970s like Herbie Hancock or Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner would only play on an acoustic piano. However, he was open-minded enough to include some fairly unusual instruments on his recordings, like the harpsichord or the traditional Japanese koto. He was also incredibly active in the 80s and 90s, playing in a trio with double bassist Avery Sharpe and drummer Aaron Scott but also at the head of the McCoy Tyner Big Band and the McCoy Tyner Latin All-Stars. Although he could create a veritable tornado of sound, McCoy Tyner’s technique also emphasised the importance of silence and moderation. As he explained to Marian McPartland during an NPR interview, “what you don’t play is just as important as what you do”.