McCoy Tyner 1938 – 2020

In the liner notes to McCoy Tyner‘s 2000 trio album with Stanley Clarke and Al Foster, Donald Elfman writes: “It’s been some forty years since McCoy Tyner changed jazz piano. Moving away from the post-bop and hard-bop stylings of the 50s, he created a massive, volcanic orchestral approach to soloing in the John Coltrane Quartets of the early to mid 1960s.” McCoy was the pianist in Coltrane’s quartet from July 1960 to December 1965. It was as if being in Coltrane’s group brought out the power and the lightning in his playing while at the same time, he recorded some lesser appreciated albums under his own name with pieces from the Great American Songbook.

McCoy Tyner
“Things Ain’t What They Used To Be”, Blue Note 1990. With John Scofield (g), George Adams (ts).

Interestingly, he always stayed away from recording disco/pop/R&B recordings in the late 70s to early 80s like so many of his peers did, with varying success. Maybe there is just one album where he actually comes close to what critics called “selling out”: on his brilliant 1982 LP “Looking Out”, he worked with synthesizer (Denzil “Broadway” Miller), horn and string arrangements (Jerry Hey) and vocalist Phyllis Hyman (“Love Surrounds Us Everywhere”). And he later released a relatively syrupy interpretation of the Burt Bacharach songbook, with symphony orchestra arranged and conducted by John Clayton (“What The World Needs Now”, 1997).

The lasting impact he had on me were his Blue Note and Milestone recordings between 1967 and 1982 where he excelled on modal compositions and always changed personnel pretty quickly. James Mtume and Alphonse Mouzon help out bridging the gap between modal and contemporary on the 1973 “Song For My Lady. He used saxophonist Azar Lawrence for some of his epic tunes like “Atlantis”, clocking in at over 18 minutes (1975), and strings, cello, harp, oboe, flute, and tambourine on the wicked “Salvadore De Samba” (“Fly With The Wind”, 1976). Even though he later focused on trio recordings, there were always some unexpected surprises, like the 1990 Milestone duo album “One On One” with violinist Stéphane Grappelli, for example, or the 1994 Blue Note duo album “Manhattan Moods” with Bobby Hutcherson on vibes and marimba where his expressively adamant playing is the central point. There is also a relatively overlooked Blue Note album with original compositions which features Marcus Miller, Jon Faddis, Jackie McLean, Al Foster, Ron Carter, and Steve Thornton (“It’s About Time”, 1986).

McCoy Tyner, one of the most influential pianists in the history of jazz, died yesterday at the age of 81. In his obit for the NY Times, Ben Ratliff quotes McCoy Tyner: “To me,” he told Mr. Hentoff, “living and music are all the same thing. And I keep finding out more about music as I learn more about myself, my environment, about all kinds of different things in life.”

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