mccoy tyner, 1938-2020

McCoy Tyner.

McCoy Tyner was a prizefighter. No, he wasn’t a boxer. For all I know, he wasn’t even an athlete. But when he sat down at the piano, the gloves came off. He was brutal with the keys, conjuring runs of intense speed and physicality fueled by a seemingly unending supply of performance stamina. But what he created wasn’t a mere display of strength. What drove his monstrous soloing and the layers of modal mischief he engaged in with his bandmates seemed to be spiritual in design and intent. Like former employer and mentor John Coltrane, Tyner played until what he had to say was concluded. And what he had to say required considerable human fire power to express.

I recall well the intermission point of a trio concert Tyner gave at the University of Louisville in 2001. Having hardly spoken to the audience, he went on a rampage at the piano with huge, muscular lines that engaged in a tug of war with the rhythm section. The intensity of his playing never waned with his hands going at the keys like a fighter to a punching bag. The sound that emerged was rich, joyous and exhausting. When intermission arrived, Tyner stood up, drenched in sweat, and immediately walked offstage as if he had not fully disconnected from whatever atomic séance had just occurred.

That’s how powerful his playing was.

For many, Tyner will be defined by his work with Coltrane during the first half of the 1960s, a period that saw the release of such vanguard recordings as “Crescent,” “Impressions,” “Ascension,” “Meditations” and, in 1964, the immortal “A Love Supreme.” That alliance alone would secure legendary status for any pianist, although the records’ blend of spiritual adventure and jazz tradition, along with their keen quartet interplay and soloing, asserted a level of dynamics few artists came close to attaining.

But it was with a near 50-year career of his own that Tyner’s playing grew bolder. The albums he recorded during the 1970s for the Milestone label were particularly striking, shifting from solo piano works (the 1972 Coltrane tribute “Echoes of a Friend”), ferocious concert statements (the 1973 Montreux Jazz Festival postcard record “Enlightenment” and it’s career-defining performance of “Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit”) and even string-enhanced music (1976’s “Fly with the Wind”). The recordings heightened Tyner’s profile as a composer to a stature that met his already proven reputation as an instrumentalist.

It was just after the release of another 1976 gem, “Focal Point,” that Tyner’s music hit me on a more personal level. As a college freshman writing for the University of Kentucky’s student newspaper The Kernel, I was assigned to interview Tyner in the midst of a week-long engagement at a Short Street jazz club called O’Keefe’s. As a disciple of the then-flourishing fusion movement, my fascination with jazz was mostly centered on the electric heroes of the day – Weather Report, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. Despite studying up on Tyner’s history, I was largely ignorant of the level of influence he held with legions of jazz contemporaries, including the electric artists I revered. That would take years for me to fully appreciate.

But on a rainy Saturday afternoon at a long-since-demolished Ramada Inn on Waller Avenue (a Subway restaurant now sits at that location), Tyner patiently fielded questions from an appreciative but woefully green journalism student. That was my first interview with a professional musician. Little did I comprehend the kind of opportunity I had been presented.

You don’t forget an encounter like that – a meeting with an artistic inspiration who was kind, patient and encouraging as you were finding your way. Many people have stories like that, of professionals who showed then support during their earliest days of pursuing a career. That was mine. It is one I will cherish to the end of my days.

After reading of Tyner’s death yesterday at the age of 81, the inspiration of that Saturday in early 1977 began to glow all over again. When I arrived home from work, I cued up a copy of “The Greeting,” another brilliant entry from Tyner’s Milestone catalog – a live album that leaps to life with the kind of brilliant acoustic vibrancy that makes the record sound like it was cut last week and not in 1978.

For his music, for his kindness and for his unwavering jazz spirit, a boundless thank you to the jazz titan who will forever be, as the title of his 1967 album proclaimed, The Real McCoy.

Comments are closed.

Terms of Service | Privacy Policy | About Our Ads | Copyright