Four decades have passed since McCoy Tyner left the famed Coltrane quartet. In that span, he has led over 50 of his own recording dates, worked with a variety of bands and distinguished himself as one of the preeminent pianists in jazz. You wouldn’t blame Tyner if he did, but never tires of discussing his 6-year stint with the iconic saxophonist. That’s because their bond was more than just professional.
“He was like a big brother to me.”
So was drummer Elvin Jones, who, like Coltrane was a decade older than Tyner and took a brotherly interest in the pianist, especially at gigs.
“In between sets if I was to sit at the bar, and I’d be sitting there, Elvin and John would sometimes meander over and they’d look to see what I was drinking… and like ‘just checking’ (laughs), not to worry. No it was just the fact that they cared. Playing with the John Coltrane Quartet, I was playing with family. And that’s what we had, we cared, we loved each other as brothers.”
While with the Coltrane quartet, Tyner expanded the harmonic language of jazz with his unique chord voicings. After Coltrane, he continued exploring those new harmonies. He also began incorporating the Latin and Afro-Cuban rhythms he was exposed to as a teenager in Philadelphia.
“There was this guy named Saca Quay (sp?). He was from Ghana and he moved into my neighborhood and a couple of my friends played congo drums. He taught them. But he actually was such a good teacher, they would play multiple polyrhythms and stop on a dime at the same time. It was amazing. So I really had a very interesting background in terms of exposure.”
McCoy Tyner’s solo career has been a colorful one. He’s worked with saxophonist Sonny Rollins, violinist Stephane Grappelli and vibest Bobby Hutcherson... in small groups, with big bands and in front of orchestras. As a composer, he is prolific and popular. Tyner originals Passion Dance, Inception, Search For Peace, and Blues on the Corner are favorites among jazz musicians. And his beautiful ballad “You Taught My Heart To Sing” was supplied with lyrics by legendary songwriter Sammy Cahn.
That’s singer Diane Reeves with the McCoy Tyner Big Band. One element you can find in nearly all of Tyner’s work is a sense of drive, of yearning, of forward motion – something I asked him about.
(Would you say, and I think you’ve told me this before, but you’re a seeker?) “Ya, ya, I wrote a song called ‘Seeker’ (laughs). I wonder why I wrote that. Ya, that’s what it is I feel like I’ve got a lot to learn. But I do feel it’s important to utilize the talents that we do have and keep moving forward and try to be happy on top of that. That’s the icing on the cake.”
As his career amply demonstrates, McCoy Tyner is a visionary. And yet, what has kept him in the forefront of jazz for more than 40 years is his awareness and appreciation of the present.
“It’s about the moment. I don’t always know what’s going to happen, how the musicians are going to respond to me, how the audience is going to respond, but, it’s the moment that counts. And I think if we savor the moment’s I think that’s the best thing that we can do. Because they’re all important.”
The McCoy Tyner Trio performs tomorrow night at 8 at the Mondavi Center in Davis. One hour earlier, KXJZ’s Gary Vercelli will give a pre-concert lecture covering Tyner’s prolific career.