In 1960, John Coltrane finally broke away from the revolutionary Miles Davis Quintet to form his own group. He’d been wanting to explore new directions and work with other musicians, among them a young pianist from Philly whose compositions were already in Coltrane’s repertoire. McCoy Tyner, who had known Coltrane since age 17, had attracted attention playing with Lee Morgan, Benny Golson, and Art Farmer. Still in his early 20s, he’d already developed a bold, densely harmonic style eminently compatible with Coltrane’s multi-toned “sheets of sound.”
That October, the John Coltrane Quartet, with Tyner on piano, Steve Davis on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums, walked into Atlantic Studios in New York City and recorded My Favorite Things. Transforming the title cut from a light-hearted children’s song into an aggressive, in-your-face modal improvisation, Tyner’s piano propelled the rhythm section for nearly 14 minutes with swinging, richly colored dotted-quarter-note chords and aggressive chordal solos. This was not your father’s Rogers & Hammerstein. The album was a hit, and The Sound of Music — and jazz — would never be the same.
Fast-forward — through landmark recordings with Coltrane (Live at the Village Vanguard, A Love Supreme, Ascension); dozens of albums as a leader on labels such as Impulse, Blue Note, and Milestone; countless compositions and arrangements for ensembles large and small; African- and Asian-influenced musical explorations; world tours and collaborations with a long list of jazz legends — to Tyner’s recent album Illuminations (Telarc, 2004). The signature style that has influenced jazz pianists for more than four decades is unmistakable: percussive, full-handed chords, rich in depth and harmonic color; ocean waves of relentless rhythm; and solo lines with notes tumbling joyfully over one another like white-water rapids.
Original compositions, like the horn-driven title cut, “Angelina,” “New Orleans Stomp,” and “The Chase,” showcase his mastery of the myriad cultural influences that make up the great American amalgam of jazz. But no matter what the song or style, it still sounds like McCoy Tyner. He fluently speaks the many languages of jazz — but always in his own voice.
Talking with Tyner is as pleasurable as listening to his music. He carries his status as a jazz icon with gentlemanly modesty, and seems to have found the balance between public persona and private life. His conversation is punctuated with easy laughter as he describes his upbringing in the fertile Philadelphia scene that spawned Bud Powell, the Heath Brothers, Lee Morgan, Stanley Clarke, and other jazz greats: “It’s a warm city. People there have genuine feeling. The older musicians were eager to help younger musicians; they nurtured jazz artists.”
Tyner began seriously studying piano at 13. His mother, a beautician, avidly supported his aspirations and saved a year’s earnings to buy him a piano. “She was wonderful,” he says. “The beauty shop — and the piano — were in the largest room in the house. Mom would be doing hair, and we’d be jamming. Right next to a lady under the hair dryer, there’d be a saxophone blowing a solo.”
Much of Tyner’s music reflects a spiritual leaning. “It’s good to understand about life on that level,” he says. “You need some stability, something to counter negative forces. I was always interested in that kind of development. I’m not perfect, you know.” He laughs. “It kept me from falling into some traps.”
Tyner has been known to say that life and music are one and the same, so it’s no surprise that he seems momentarily at a loss when asked what he does when he’s not playing. “I enjoy every day of my life. I enjoy traveling. And friends. But not too many friends,” he says wryly. “I keep it to the minimum.”
He holds details of his next project close to the vest, only saying that it involves guitars and about 75 percent original music. The current Story of Impulse Records tour features Tyner’s regular trio — Philadelphia-born Eric Kamau Gravatt on drums and Charnett Moffett on bass — and an all-star horn section: saxophonists Dave Liebman (Chick Corea, Quest) and Donald Harrison (Art Blakey, the Headhunters), fellow Philly alumnus Wallace Roney (Herbie Hancock, Ornette Coleman) on trumpet, and trombonist/seashellist Steve Turre.
“Jazz has done a lot for us as a people. We invented an art form we can be really proud of. It is the spiritual essence of our people. It develops certain aspects of our cultural being,” he says.
What questions does music ask of Tyner? “It doesn’t ask; it answers my questions. It helps me develop as a human being. It gives me answers to what I am.”
And what does jazz ask of us, the audience? “Only that you listen. That you pay attention. That you become a part of the experience and let it take you on a journey. And if you don’t,” he says mischievously, “I’ll make you listen.” l