Remembering Pianist McCoy Tyner: 1938-2020

The 81-year-old piano giant McCoy Tyner has passed away at his home in Northern New Jersey. His work as the harmonic cornerstone of the John Coltrane Quartet of 1960-1965, and Tyner’s own subsequent recordings and bands, made him a hugely influential jazz piano stylist. In the Quartet, Tyner set a new model for how a piano could drive a jazz ensemble: with a strong rhythmic left hand, and rich chords that left harmonic discretion to the horns.

The Coltrane Quartet represented the cutting edge of 1960s jazz. On album after album (all on the Impulse! label), they moved the chains on what jazz could be in that turbulent decade. Coltrane’s tenor saxophone could cascade to torrential intensity and volume, and Tyner’s piano gave pound-for-pound. Indeed, the whole band generated Book-of-Revelations ferocity on albums like Impressions (1963), A Love Supreme (1964), and Live at Birdland (1964). Yet a collection of romantic ballads, The John Coltrane-Johnny Hartman Album (1963) surprised many of the band’s more intense fans.

In his own ensembles, Tyner was a marvel—leading a surging band of young players with unquestioned musical authority that radiated from the piano bench. He layered the foundations of a piece with chords, firmly undergirding the horns. On forte stretches, his left hand bounced six or so inches off the keyboard in perfect meter, while the right snaked outward, looking for the most advantages notes and chords. As a solo player, the chords piled up and their overtones yielded ornamental dividends. Gary Giddins, in the Village Voice, once observed of Tyner: “Those hands can press coal into diamonds.”

Alfred McCoy Tyner was a Philadelphian who grew up around pianists Bud and Richie Powell, Ray Bryant, Red Garland, and organist Jimmy Smith. Tyner began piano studies in grade school, and his mother moved a piano into her beauty salon. The teenage pianist practiced and rehearsed while women had their hair coiffed. He studied at the Granoff School of Music, and played in R&B bands with trumpeter Lee Morgan. Tyner met Coltrane while playing in Cal Massey’s band at the Red Rooster bar in 1957. Tyner told the Grammy Foundation’s oral history project in 2008: “I didn’t grow up in a ghetto. I grew up in a community.”

He converted to Islam at age 17, and took the name Sulieman Saud. Tyner was serious about his faith: Coltrane recorded his original, “The Believer,” in 1958. While some heard aggression, defiance and racial exclusivity in the music of the Quartet, Tyner was a gentleman with a mild manner.

Tyner joined the band of his neighbor Benny Golson and Art Farmer, the Jazztet, which refined the harder edges of hard bop. Even on his first recordings, the strong chording was present in his playing.

Coltrane’s first hire for the Quartet was Tyner; bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones followed. As the band expanded with more players, the clarity of the music’s structural foundation diminished. Tyner relinquished the piano chair to Alice Coltrane in 1965.

After Coltrane’s untimely death in 1967, Tyner was briefly all-at sea. A short stay with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, and some guest shots on Blue Note albums by Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter and others were rewarding, but didn’t enhance Tyner’s profile beyond sideman.

In the 1970s, as electronic instrumentation, jazz-rock and fusion dominated much of the jazz landscape, Tyner remained steadfastly devoted to the acoustic piano. Whether he led his trio, a septet, or even his occasionally-convening McCoy Tyner Big Band, he wanted every instrument to be heard. He signed with Milestone in 1972, and released a succession of albums that emphasized percussion in the ensembles and song-like original material. Another album, Revelations (Blue Note 1988) was nothing less than a master class of solo piano ballads.

Tyner was a five-time Grammy winner, a 2002 NEA Jazz Master, and recipient of the Philadelphia Chapter of the Recording Academy’s Hero award.
Tyner’s passing was announced on his Facebook account on March 6, but the cause has not been publicly disclosed. He is survived by his wife, Aisha, his son, Nurudeen, three grandchildren, and siblings Jarvis and Gwendolyn-Yvette Tyner.

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