McCoy Tyner: A Brief Appreciation


I only found out about the passing of this great jazz pianist, on the sixth of this month of March 2020, only a couple of days ago. which is either a sign of my lack of attention to news reports, or of the general under-appreciation of a tremendous musician and improviser. Or maybe both. After all, we are very much in an ‘either/or’ world at present, and it’s always good to step outside the binary, whenever the chance presents itself. Artists like Tyner have always been sidelined when the ‘immortal’ tags are given out, but, as the title of his very first solo outing suggested, he was very much the ‘real McCoy’. And he was also one of the rapidly-diminishing number of still-living Sixties Masters (he was born in 1938), being just twenty four years old when he made his debit recording with the timeless John Coltrane Quartet (’Greensleeves’, a version of which eventually appeared on Africa/Brass), which made his name and  immortalised him in the Jazz Hall of Fame.

I have to state at this pint, that Tyner has never been one of my favourite jazz musicians. But his passing does seem to me hugely significant. As far as I know, Reggie Workman is still alive and, as such, now the last survivor of the Quartet, but it is salutary to remember that Tyner’s first solo album, The Real McCoy, was recorded just two months before the death of John Coltrane, nearly FIFTY THREE years ago. So McCoy kept the Coltrane legacy going for over half a century, a legacy that has only grown in stature throughout all those years. I can’t really give a hugely informed valediction to McCoy Tyner, but I know an important jazz musician when I hear one, and the pianist was most certainly one of these. I’ve got almost all of the Impulse! Coltrane Quartet material, partly in the form of the imposing The Classic Quartet:Complete Impulse! Studio Recordings. This eight-disc compilation is housed in a seemingly iron-clad cover, which exactly suits the tone of Coltrane’s group, which lacks little except for, perhaps, a bit of humour? I know one doesn’t go to Free(ish) Jazz for a good laff, but even Albert Ayler can occasionally be slightly light-hearted, but hey, this was well before Post Modernism. Undoubtedly spiritually uplifting, Coltrane ran the risk of being oppressive in his music’s seriousness. Many will completely disagree, I’m sure, but there is a reason why I don’t play this Quartet as much as I play Ornette’s, of around the same period.

The extra-Coltrane records that have bought me the most Tyner-related joy are his first solo disc, and the two Milestone Records doubles, recorded in 1973/4. The Real McCoy, recorded in April 1967 (arguably at the nadir of jazz’s popularity?) is a real Blue Note stomper, with Joe Henderson standing in for the soon-gone Coltrane, and Elvin Jones, also from the Quartet, forming the rest of the rhythm section, with the addition of Miles’s then-bassist, Ron Carter. This was a peer group of greats, and is one of the label’s outstanding avant recordings from the mid-sixties, a period that produced so many of them; others include the works of Andrew Hill, Bobby Hutcherson, Tony Williams, Sam Rivers and Larry Young. The late Richard Cook’s biography of Blue Note goes into details about these years of 1963-7 in Chapter Nine.

The Milestone doubles consist of Enlightenment  (1973) and Atlantis (1974). I’m tempted to bracket these ‘intense-athons’ with Miles Davis’s contemporary outpourings of excess, Aghartha and Pangea, but their modus is entirely different. As well as being all double vinyl excursions, they were all sprawling live concert recordings of extended-length tracks, that took up whole sides of their vinyl versions. Tyner himself is a force of nature on these records, and his playing can be compared to Cecil Taylor’s energy and sheer ‘orneriness, and, of course, to his mentor, Coltrane, in terms of sheer massiveness of purpose and intent. Not for the fainthearted, these albums are draining, and they remind one of just how much of this quality was available for interested audiences at this oint in time.  Incantatory in form and purpos, this music still astounds if you let it, nearly fifty years on.

Others will write more about this exceptional musician, and I can console myself by thinking how much more of his music I still have to discover. And surely there is no better time than this one of self-isolation to make these discoveries in?

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The banner picture is by the late Mal Dean (1941-1974), which featured on the cover of the 1972 Incus Records vinyl release, Live Performances at Verity's Place, by two free improvisation pioneers, the English guitarist Derek Bailey and Dutch percussionist Han Bennink.