Jazz Institute of Chicago

McCoy Tyner

McCoy Tyner
by Stuart Nicholson

Milestone [A] MCD 55002-2.
Azar Lawrence (ten, sop); McCoy Tyner (p); Joony Booth (bs); Wilby Fletcher (d); Guilherme Franco (perc).
San Francisco
31 August & 1 September 1974.

Atlantis. In a sentimental mood. Makin’ out. My one and only love. Pursuit. Love samba.

Tyner’s role as the voice of reason that united the competing voices in John Coltrane’s classic quartet of 1960–65 catapulted the former Benny Golson/Art Farmer Jazztet pianist to international recognition. During his period with Coltrane he introduced a fresh approach to the jazz piano with a way of comping that was new to jazz.

Instead of the model commonly adopted by pianists that had evolved from Bud Powell, Tyner’s approach was more aggressive and, particularly in modal numbers or those based on a pedal-point, he employed insistent, repeated rhythmic patterns of open voiced chords that were often made up of a chord voiced in fifths in the left hand and a chord voiced in fourths in the right.

His extensive use of quartal voicings came to characterise his ‘sound’ within the Coltrane quartet, their open, unresolved sound (as opposed to conventional triads) lending an air of harmonic ambiguity that suited Coltrane’s style.

Yet his work as a leader in his own right for the Impulse and Blue Note record labels revealed a more considered, less energetic player, illustrated best by his 5 July 1963 performance on McCoy Tyner Live at Newport (+Impulse [J] AS-48) with a pick-up group under his own leadership and his performance two days later at the same festival as a member of Coltrane’s quartet on Newport ‘63 (+Impulse GRP 11282).
Tyner recorded six albums as a leader for Blue Note, beginning with The Real McCoy (Blue Note BST 84264) in 1967,[i] and it is now clear that on these albums, his style, although extremely influential while with Coltrane, was still to fully coalesce.

"I was really riding a tremendous wave when I was with John; it was my school, my university," he pointed out. "I developed a lot working with him, but it took a while after I left him to get settled and find a perspective. When I left it was like coming down off a mountain top, I had to settle down, I recorded standards [Time for Tyner (Blue Note BST 84307)] and it was a different kind of feeling. An artist has to reflect what he feels at a given time and that is how I felt after that peak experience."[ii]

His departure from Coltrane’s quartet coincided with the rise of rock music which had the effect of dramatically squeezing work opportunities in jazz. Like many at this time he was forced to take a day jobs to make ends meet including taxi-driving alongside working as an accompanist for Jimmy Witherspoon.

After over five years of struggle on the periphery of the music business, producer Orrin Keepnews signed him to Milestone Records. His first album for the label, Sahara (+OJC CD 311-2), recorded in January/February 1972, re-established his career, winning the 1973 down beat Critic’s Poll as Record of the Year and receiving two Grammy nominations, as Best Jazz Performance by a Soloist and Best Jazz Performance by a Group.

Recorded with a quartet comprising Sonny Fortune (sop, alt, fl), Calvin Hill (bs) and Alphonse Mouzon (d) the album is notable for its long (23 min) title track and Tyner’s abstracted "Alleluia, A prayer for my family". What is immediately apparent, however, is a seeming transformation in Tyner’s playing.

Tyner’s virtuosity was less masked, but it was the ends to which he put it that was so arresting. He made greater use of polytonality and of dissonance and had taken account of Cecil Taylor. There was a greater drive in his playing and he favoured crashing cadence points and rumbling ostinatos. His playing was less linear than his Blue Note albums, the emphasis more on clusters of sounds contrasted by long, greased runs of semi-quavers.

The force of his attack made his quartal voicings appear dense, shimmering structures-indeed, overall his playing had become darker, denser and more intense. It was if the elements that characterised his playing with Coltrane had been magnified to the power of ten.

With Sahara, Tyner suddenly emerged as piano visionary, something that became clear on Song for My Lady (Milestone 9044) from 1973 and Song of the New World (Milestone 9049) from the same year with a large ensemble that included strings.

In May 1973 Fortune left and was replaced by Azar Lawrence, a 22 year-old former Ike and Tina Turner tenor saxophonist currently with the Elvin Jones quartet, while Joony Booth, who had been playing with Tony Williams, came in on bass for Hill, who had departed shortly after Song for my Lady. It was with this re-vamped quartet line-up that Tyner played the 1973 Montreux Jazz Festival on Saturday, 7 July.

Enlightenment (+Milestone MCD-55001-2) documents the occasion, and revealed the full visceral impact of Tyner’s playing in a way that his previous three studio recordings, all nevertheless important Tyner albums, did not. On Enlightenment Tyner emerges with a voice that in terms of its emotional force and spirituality could now be said to equal that of Coltrane.

One of the highlights of the album, "Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit", captures Tyner’s group taking flight. A long, discursive solo from Booth leads into Tyner’s dramatic entry, a repeated two-bar ostinato that is the basis of the composition over which Lawrence, a still immature Coltrane-influenced saxophonist, played a repeated four-bar melody that leads into a crashing cadence point and a return to the theme. Lawrence soloed first, capable and energetic, but it is Tyner that captures our imagination.

Like Coltrane, he began his solo at an intensity that was almost superhuman, and succeeded in sustaining and increasing the energy and forward momentum of his ideas logically and cohesively; his dense, swarming virtuosity making extensive use of side-slipping, chromatic runs and crashing ostinatos.

The rhythm section drops out on cue and he spins a feverish Cecil Taylor-ish interlude. Although he seems to veer into free time, the two-bar ostinato continues to play in perfect time in Tyner’s mind, the elaborate fantasia he spins is a surreal counterpoint to a pulse imagined rather than stated. Suddenly Tyner re-states the two-bar motif, and re-entering the song a tempo he takes the piece to its conclusion.

Up to this point there had been nothing in Tyner’s discography to suggest the frightening intensity of his playing. "I felt very good that night," said Tyner, "the people came to listen and they gave me something back that was necessary to make the music a success."[iii]

During the last two weeks of August 1974, Tyner was booked into the Keystone Korner, Todd Barkan’s legendary San Francisco jazz club that finally closed its doors in 1983, and Atlantis was recorded during Labor Day weekend.

By now, Tyner had let Mouzon go, replacing him with Wilby Fletcher who had in turn been replaced by Billy Hart who, with the addition of Brazilian percussionist Guilherme Franco and an augmented front line, appeared on Sama Layuca (Milestone M-9056). However, Fletcher continued to keep in touch with Tyner, closing his experience deficit (he was only 19 years-old when he first joined Tyner) by working with Charles Earland. When Hart left, Fletcher got the call from Tyner and the quintet quickly shook down into an impressive working unit.

By now, Tyner’s stock in jazz had soared. All his Milestone albums had been critically acclaimed and at the time of the Keystone engagement he was down beat’s Critic’s Choice for the second year in a row. Playing to overflow crowds, a contemporaneous review of the engagement observed: "The depth of the audience’s response cannot be measured by the decibels of their applause as much as the looks on their faces. It is safe to say the crowd was spellbound rather than attentive; transported, rather than moved."[iv]

It is important to realise that at this time, Tyner’s music was being enacted out against a background of jazz-rock and with attention centered elsewhere, his playing during this period has tended to be overlooked.

While practically every pianist in jazz was plugging-in during the early 1970s and going electric, Tyner remained steadfastly acoustic, able to make a Steinway roar without amplification.

"Atlantis" followed the successful format of "Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit"—a discursive introduction, this time by percussionist Franco and Tyner, a statement of the theme over a fingered bass by Tyner in unison with Booth, a Lawrence solo, more assured and with greater momentum and variety in his line than his work on Enlightenment, and the swirling power of Tyner’s piano.

His high tensile attack, his sound-sheet arpeggios and thunderous pedal points with his hands pounding the keyboard from shoulder height, his high-register lines that carved out unpredictable paths was now among the most exhilarating experiences in jazz.

Although the piece is based on the hypnotic bass ostinato, Tyner makes extensive use of side-slipping, or side stepping as it sometimes called, adding great tension to his playing.

The static harmonies of modal tunes and those based on an ostinato or pedal point respond well to dissonance providing a contrast the ear welcomes and which Tyner masterfully exploits. Here too, was a better empathy between the group, perhaps even mutual respect; internally intricate and exotic, outwardly forceful and unrelenting.

Tyner’s solo interpretation of "In a Sentimental Mood" illustrates with great clarity the advances he had made in his playing since his Blue Note days. No stranger to reharmonising the standards repertoire, for example, Coltrane’s "Body and Soul" from Coltrane’s Sound (Atlantic [A] SD 1419) is a seldom commented masterpiece of reharmonisation from 1960.

As personal a statement by Coltrane as his saxophone playing, the middle-8 is perhaps the best known part of Coltrane’s treatment of the tune where he substitutes changes similar to "Giant Steps" that move the key centers around in major 3rds. Coltrane’s poetic license in adapting Johnny Green’s ballad clearly suggested a huge range of possibilities to Tyner, then learning his craft.

Similarly, he uses considerable license himself as he personalises "In a Sentimental Mood," demonstrating the wide ranging theoretical knowledge needed to master ‘the changes.’

During the exposition of the melody, Tyner also showed his mastery of playing ‘outside’ the changes, effectively bi-tonality, or two tonalities played at the same time.

This could easily sound as if he was playing wrong notes, but Tyner’s imperious authority makes his note choices outside the written harmony sound 'right'. While he had already demonstrated his mastery of inside/outside playing during his Blue Note period on numbers such as "Passion Dance" from The Real McCoy, this technique now emerges as a key element of his style.

Often he played sequences that began within the harmonies, went outside them, then returned to the harmonic sequence. Most commonly he achieved the 'outside' feel by playing a semi-tone away from the song’s tonality, which while achieving a dissonant effect, allows the ear to relate to the underlying harmonic base and conceive a logic in the dissonance. Equally, Tyner’s darting chromatic runs offered a further sense of harmonic ambiguity since chromatic scales belong to every chord yet to none.

Overall, "In a Sentimental Mood" is a genuine tour de force, and revealed why Tyner had emerged as one of the most influential pianists in contemporary jazz.

"Makin’ Out" and "Pursuit" continue Tyner’s high energy workouts, with the latter, in terms of form, rhythm and tempo, cohering far more cogently than the former. "My One and Only Love," a piano-tenor-percussion ballad is as much a feature for Lawrence as it was Tyner.
"I hired Azar because he was exciting at that time," said the pianist. "I thought he had some potential. But in general I was a little sensitive about people trying to sound like Coltrane, that’s why I had a lot of alto players in my band up to then."[v] Lawrence was never to fulfil the potential Tyner saw in him however, and after leaving the group in 1976 little was heard from him.

Tyner’s "Love Samba" is far more muscular than the title suggests, a well written theme presented with layers of polyrhythmic interaction that produced a solo of equal polyrhythmic density from Tyner and, along with "My One and Only Love", also provoked some of Lawrence’s best work on the album.

Throughout the 1970s Tyner continued an exemplary run of albums; when Lawrence left he was replaced by John Blake on violin and, at various times, saxophonists Joe Ford, George Adams and Gary Bartz.[vi]

Tyner’s emergence as a major soloist during the 1970s still continues to be overshadowed the rise of jazz-rock and even today, potted jazz histories tend to include lump Tyner in with the John Coltrane Quartet and pursue his career no further.[vii]

Yet the completeness of his pianistic concept by the time of Enlightenment set him apart, "Few musicians in the history of jazz have radically changed its practise, its daily working vocabulary...[as] McCoy Tyner," noted The New York Times.[viii]

Just as importantly, Tyner not only forged an instantly recognisable style but also envisaged a challenging context to focus his virtuosity. Unusually, he did not initially see the piano trio as a forum to express his great talent, preferring instead to work with ensembles from a quartet to, on record at least, large ensembles with desks of violins, violas, cellos, brass and saxophones.

It was not until May 1984 that he formed his own trio which became his preferred working group into the late 1990s. During this period, however, the intensity and emotional force of his playing slackened and he often deferred to the able, but by no means equal, musicians alongside him. Nevertheless, a trilogy of solo albums for the re-constituted Blue Note label between 1988-91 [ix] represented another peak in an often overlooked career.

i. Followed by Tender Moments (Blue Note BST 84275) from 1967, Time for Tyner (Blue Note BST 84307) from 1968, Expansions (Blue Note BST 84338) from 1968, Extensions (Blue Note LA006) from 1970 and Asante (Blue Note LA223-G) also from 1970. Several unissued selections from various sessions were gathered together and subsequently issued as Cosmos (Blue Note BN 460).

ii. Interview with SN, 11 October 1997.
iii. Jazz Forum, provenance unknown, courtesy National Sound Archive, British Library.
iv. down beat, 21 November 1974 pp 29.
v. Liner notes, Milestone MCD 55002-2.
vi. Particularly recommended are The Greeting (Milestone M-9085), a live date with his sextet at the Great American Music Hall from March 1978, and Horizon (Milestone M-9094), a studio date from 1979 with his septet that many consider to number among Tyner’s best recorded work.
vii. Most recently (at the end of 1997 at least), The Chronicle of Jazz by Mervyn Cooke (Thames and Hudson, London 1997), which save for a passing mention as a member of Coltrane’s quartet, failed to chronicle one of the most important and influential pianists of contemporary times.
viii. New York Times, 14 March 1996.
ix. Revelations (Blue Note CDO 791651-2) from 1988, Things Ain’t What They Used To Be (Blue Note CDP 793588-2) from 1989, with three duet tracks with John Scofield and two duet tracks with George Adams, and Soliloquy (Blue Note CDP 796429-2) from 1991.

Stuart Nicholson is the author of five books on jazz and is the only European jazz writer to have received two Notable Book of the Year citations from The New York Times Review of Books. His latest book Reminsicing in Tempo: A Portrait of Duke Ellington is published by Northeastern University Press. He is also co-author of The Essential Jazz Records Vol. 2: Modernism to Postmodernism with Max Harrison and Eric Thacker.

Copyright ©2002 Jazz Institute of Chicago. All rights reserved.

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