Remembering McCoy Tyner

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Like many people, I discovered jazz pianist McCoy Tyner through listening to John Coltrane’s music. I first heard him during high school on the title track to 1960’s My Favorite Things. Tyner plays a beautiful solo, alternating between major and minor. I’ve always been amazed by his magical interpretation of this simple song from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music. I even love Tyner’s little flub (at 5:03) in the major section of his solo. It would have been a crime to have used any other take. All in all, Coltrane’s group transforms the melody into work of great beauty and power.

McCoy Tyner, who died March 6 at the age of 81, had a special touch and sound. He joined Coltrane’s quartet at just 21, providing a perfect harmonic backdrop for Coltrane’s melodic explorations—playing powerful left-hand chords and emphasizing the use of fourths to create a very modern sound. Tyner anchored the music, thus allowing Coltrane to explore Indian modes and a range of other sounds that few jazz saxophonists had ever visited. Coltrane said in 1961, “My current pianist, McCoy Tyner, holds down the harmonies, and that allows me to forget them. He’s sort of the one who gives me wings and lets me take off from the ground from time to time.” (Quoted from Ben Ratliff’s New York Times obituary.)

Before joining the famous quartet, Tyner worked with Benny Golson and Art Farmer’s The Jazztet and recorded the original version of “Killer Joe” in 1960. Tyner also played on Freddie Hubbard’s first Blue Note album, Open Sesame, that same year. But it was the 5-year stint with Coltrane that made McCoy Tyner famous. After eight albums for Atlantic Records, the quartet recorded 11 albums for Impulse.

As Coltrane pushed further afield on his musical and spiritual odyssey, Tyner left the quartet and signed with Blue Note. He recorded superb albums in the late 60’s like Tender Moments, Expansions, and The Real McCoy. He signed with Milestone Records in the 70’s, issuing other stellar albums including Fly with the Wind, Supertrios, Inner Voices, and Together. Tyner continued to record dozens of albums under his own name until 2009’s Solo: Live from San Francisco.

Despite his fame, Tyner always remained humble about life and music. According to the New York Times, Tyner once told music journalist Nat Hentoff, “To me, living and music are all the same thing. And I keep finding out more about music as I learn more about myself, my environment, about all kinds of different things in life.”

Both Coltrane and Tyner were spiritual seekers. Coltrane turned to Hinduism and mysticism, especially after marrying his second wife, Alice Coltrane. For his part, Tyner turned to Islam in his late teens and continued to practice it all his life. His Muslim name was Sulieman Saud. (South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim dedicated his song “Saud” to Tyner.) Tyner told Nat Hentoff, “My faith teaches peacefulness, love of God and the unity of mankind.”

We have lost a musical titan, but we have a great deal of recorded music to celebrate his genius. Here are a few personal favorites:

Watch Tyner play “My Favorite Things” in a small Japanese club during the 1970’s:

The enduring and global popularity of “My Favorite Things” as a jazz standard owes as much to McCoy Tyner as it does to Coltrane. As an aside, I was delighted by the Pakistani Sachal Jazz Ensemble’s performance of the song with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. I previously wrote about the Sachal’s improbable, wonderful trip to New York from Lahore. The orchestra’s pianist Dan Nimmer really channels Tyner’s style and big left-hand chords, and the bansuri (Indian bamboo flute) solo is so beautiful.