McCoy Tyner has always loomed large in my jazz listening. This is inevitable given that for almost six years he played an elemental role in John Coltrane’s classic 1960’s quartet. And no quartet in the history of jazz had a bigger, more continuing impact than this one. McCoy Tyner was only 27 when he left Coltrane; his place in the pantheon of modern jazz would have been secured just on the basis of his body of work drawn from the rest of his long career.

McCoy Tyner 1963

Coltrane had total faith in McCoy Tyner. Trane had spotted him as a teenager in Philadelphia, where he had temporarily relocated to kick his heroin habit. Tyner had been mentored in Philly by Bud Powell and Richie Powell and had successfully sat in with Max Roach & Sonny Rollins at age 18. Coltrane saw him as the perfect pianist to support and add to his intense musical explorations. When Coltrane was ready to assemble his stellar quartet, he called McCoy Tyner and the rest is history. It is noticeable how, in so many recordings of the classic quartet it is Tyner who sets the tone ahead of the tune, and Tyner again who takes the first solo, establishing a sound world for Coltrane to explore and embellish.

Tyner’s distinctive and powerful left hand, his reliance on improvisational voicings in fourths , rather than the more traditional thirds, his frequent use of dynamic pedal points, his long and mesmeric solos which he built up chorus after chorus, his total familiarity with the range of Coltrane’s music from My Favourite Things, through to Trane’s penchant for unlikely ballads, through to his increasingly volcanic and long-form improvisations, all underlined his distinctive contribution both to Coltrane’s music and to the development of modern jazz more widely.

But it would be quite wrong to limit our appreciation of McCoy Tyner to his contribution to Coltrane’s Quartet. He left Coltrane in 1965 to lead his own bands and continued to do so for a career that was to last more than fifty years. McCoy Tyner died in March 2020 aged 81, the last surviving member of the classic John Coltrane quartet.

McCoy Tyner circa. 2000

I was fortunate to hear Tyner live on many occasions. The first time was a volcanic gig at the North Sea Jazz Festival in 1977 where Tyner’s band closed out that day’s schedule with a performance that started at 1AM and went on for two hours. That band featured George Adams on tenor sax and Woody “Son Ship” Theus on drums. I can still remember the excitement that that band generated that night. He was a regular visitor at Ronnie Scott’s, and I particularly recall a standout residency where the band included the great Joe Lovano on tenor sax.

McCoy Tyner is one of few jazz pianists who are, at least to my ear, instantly recognisable. That unique left hand, the story-telling ability of his right hand, his distinctive and sensitive support for soloists. Tyner also bequeathed a substantial body of original material, much of it dating back to his recorded output with Blue Note, Impulse and Milestone in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, many of which have been accorded the status of jazz standards.

From what I have learnt McCoy Tyner, an early convert to Islam, was a sensitive, humble, and private person. This makes the following quote from Lewis Porter’s excellent biography of John Coltrane even more telling,

“Personally, and without the least pretension on my part, I believe that Coltrane wouldn’t have evolved in the same fashion if he hadn’t had me as his pianist. My playing, I believe, possessed also this metronomic accuracy rhythmic accuracy, because I have a strong left hand, John knew that he could count on this rhythmic foundation, on this carpet, and that even when he threw himself into his wildest improvisations, he would always have behind him, unshakeable, the regular tempo of his pianist.”

Lewis Porter also quotes Tyner reflecting on the difficult decision he took to leave Coltrane’s band,

“I didn’t see myself making any kind of contribution to that music. At times I couldn’t hear what anybody was doing! I didn’t have any feeling for the music, and when I don’t have feelings, I don’t play.”

McCoy Tyner’s “feeling for the music” was immediately evident in all his performances.

My accompanying playlist focuses on three phases of Tyner’s lengthy life in music; selections from the classic Coltrane quartet, his recordings as a leader, and as a sideman, mainly for Blue Note both while he was with Coltrane and immediately after and a brief selection from an extensive discography for the remainder of his career, with the main focus on Tyner’s recordings in the 60’s and 70’s.

If you were previously unaware of McCoy Tyner here is a great chance to familiarize yourself with a modern jazz master.