McCoy Tyner – Breaking Jazz Ground

Rising to prominence in the 1960s as part of the classic John Coltrane Quartet, jazz pianist McCoy Tyner has one of the most immediately recognisable styles in jazz. His distinctive approach at the keyboard, both in terms of touch and concept, has influenced just about every jazz piano player since.

Join us as we take a look at some key moment from a career which stretched over six decades and tipped the jazz world on its head.

McCoy Tyner was born on 11 December 1938 in Pennsylvania, USA. He was encouraged to take up music by his mother, who installed a piano in the beauty salon which she ran from their house.

As McCoy recalled in a 2008 interview with pianist Dan Tepfer, “we’d have jam sessions in the shop as I got into my teens. There’d be a saxophone player playing a solo next to a lady in the drier.”

It was not until the relatively late age of thirteen that he began to learn formally, at the Granoff School of Music. Studying harmony and theory alongside the piano, his rapid progress saw him playing in and around the Philadelphia area in no time.

McCoy Tyner: Two Early Influences

This development was undoubtedly helped by a couple of frequent visitors to the Tyner home: Bud Powell and his brother Richie.

Fellow pianist Bud Powell already a legendary figure on the scene, having been a early player on the bebop scene, recording with Charlie Parker; his influence can certainly be discerned in some of Tyner’s early recordings.

The second influence was another bebop pioneer: Thelonious Monk.

Immersing himself in the older musician’s work, McCoy would pick up Monk’s percussive style of playing, a trait that he would use and develop with his own dynamic left-hand voicings for years to come.

Early Career

In 1959 at just 21 years old, Tyner found himself occupying the piano stool in a band led by trumpeter Art Farmer and saxophonist Benny Golson; it became known as The Jazztet.

Digging out some recordings from that era, one can hear McCoy Tyner honing his solid accompanying style and block-chord soloing on jazz standards like Easy Living and hard bop classics of the era, such as this version of Killer Joe.

Fast forward less than a year and McCoy was in the piano ‘chair’ of John Coltrane’s quartet, recording the soon-to-be iconic jazz album My Favourite Things.

Perhaps following in the saxophonist’s relentless pursuit of music development, Tyner’s own playing seemed to evolve at an astounding rate. His now-characteristic harmonic style (using ‘fourths’ voicings, for musician readers) was groundbreaking at the time, and formed a major part of the ‘sound’ of this new music.

Coupled with his dynamic attack on the piano, his accompaniment would lift fellow musicians to new heights of intensity – a perfect match for Coltrane’s playing at the time.

The Rhythm Section

It was perhaps Coltrane’s concept for running the band which played the biggest role in the young pianist’s growth. Taking a leaf out of the Miles Davis playbook, the saxophonist looked to bring together his ideal rhythm section and keep them together as long as possible so they could develop together.

The foundation was already there in 1960 when drummer Elvin Jones sat down alongside McCoy and Coltrane for the My Favorite Things recording. The final part of the puzzle would be found in 1961 when, after trying several bassist, Jimmy Garrison began his tenure with the band and the classic John Coltrane Quartet was born.

It’s McCoy or No one!

This group worked and recorded together pretty much non-stop for the next 5 years, churning out a string of legendary jazz albums including A Love Supreme, Live! at the Village Vanguard, Crescent and Ascension.

In fact, such was Tyner’s influence on the music that Coltrane would not use any other piano player.

This association continued until 1965 when the saxophonist was taking his music further out beyond modal and chordal jazz, and Tyner felt that he was unable to contribute further. His eventual replacement: the great Alice Coltrane.

McCoy Tyner: Life After Coltrane

Where Coltrane continued his forays into free and avant garde territory, McCoy shifted course and embraced the style which would come to be known as Post Bop.

Seemingly revitalised, he stepped out as leader and began a series of recordings that have come to be regarded as jazz classics.

The Real McCoy for Blue Note (1967) with Joe Henderson on tenor is seen as indispensable listening, described by producer Alfred Lion as “a pure jazz session“.

So too is Sahara, recorded five years later, for the Milestone label which would be his home for the next 15 years.

Never being drawn fully into the fusion or free scenes of the 1970s, he nonetheless pushed the boundaries of jazz, making early use of instruments and techniques from other cultures, notably playing the Japanese koto, a traditional stringed instrument.

A recently-released video of him in the early 1980s at the iconic Montreux Jazz Festival gives a taste of the subtle addition of south-east Asian influences to his driving modal jazz.

Outliving many of his contemporaries, he toured prolifically throughout the 1980s and 1990s. He delivered a series of recordings which, whilst not receiving the critical success of his earlier output, provide a fascinating insight into his playing style of a legendary jazz musician.

Whilst his most famous contribution to jazz was the remarkable recordings with John Coltrane, Tyner continued to make compelling music in every conceivable setting from big band to solo piano until his final recording, Solo: Live from San Francisco from a concert in May 2007.

McCoy Tyner passed away on March 6, 2020, but his legacy lives on, and his influence is felt on many of today’s jazz pianists.

Looking for more? Check out our round up of some of the most famous jazz pianists of all time or our deep-dive into modal jazz albums.

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