McCoy Tyner Biography by Leon Kerkstra

Pianist McCoy (Alfred) Tyner is best remembered from the John Coltrane Quartet. In the past decades since he has become one of the major pianists and composers, expanding the vocabulary of color and harmony. His lusty piano is richly percussive and hammering, while full of cascading and romantic sounds. His unique and forceful style has inspired and influenced a whole new generation of musicians.

Tyner was born in Philadelphia on December 11, 1938, the oldest of three children. He was encouraged to study piano by his mother. He finally began studying the piano at age 13 and within two years, music had become the focal point in his life.

In the beginning McCoy practiced on a neighbour's piano. When his family bought one, he began hosting jam sessions. Among his friends and neighbours were a number of young musicians who would go on to make their marks in jazz, such as trumpeter Lee Morgan, saxophonist Archie Shepp, pianist Bobby Timmons, and bassist Regie Workman. "Bud and Richie Powell moved into my neighbourhood. Bud was a major influence on me during my early teens. He was very dynamic." In addition, Thelonious Monk and Art Tatum were young McCoy's major influences. McCoy studied at the West Philadelphia Music School and later at Granoff School of Music.

At age 17, while playing at a local club called the Red Rooster, he first met JOHN COLTRANE. Coltrane was in Philadelphia between gigs with Miles Davis. The saxophonist, whose style was still in its formative stages and whose reputation was on the rise, had no working group of his own, but secured a few engagements in and around Philadelphia, with McCoy often in his rhythm section. The rapport between the two was so apparent, that Coltrane made it clear that he hoped to eventually have a regular band with McCoy Tyner in it.

His first main exposure came with BENNY GOLSON being the first pianist in Golson's and Art Farmer's legendary Jazztet (1959). By 1960, when John Coltrane finally left Miles Davis to form his own group, McCoy left Art Farmer. Tyner continued with Coltrane through 1965, participating in all the major recording sessions.

The pianist participated in numerous historical recording sessions with Coltrane, including for instance Africa Brass, A Love Supreme, and My Favorite Things. While with Coltrane, Tyner also recorded many of his own albums for Impulse!, including such classics as "Inception", "Night of Ballads and Blues", and "Live at Newport", and later for Blue Note, which enabled him to feature his densely rich piano sound to great effect.

Upon Leaving Coltrane (1965), there was a lull in Tyner's popularity. The future looked bright and the trio he formed seemed to have a big future. In fact he spent the next five years playing superbly but getting more and more disillusioned due to lack of acceptance. But he rebounded in the 1970's. Due to groups featuring Sonny Fortune and Azar Lawrence and recordings for Milestone like "Sahara", which received two Grammy nominations and was named 'Album of the year' in the Down Beat Critics Poll, Tyner gained recognition. He toured and recorded with SONNY ROLLINS, Ron Carter and Al Foster as the Milestone Jazzstars in 1978, and in the mid-1980s led a quintet that included Gary Bartz and violinist John Blake.

Since 1980, he has also arranged his lavishly textured harmonies for a big band that performs and records when possible. In the late 1980s, he mainly focussed on his regular piano trio featuring Avery Sharpe on bass and Aarron Scott on drums. As of today, this trio is still in great demand. He returned to Impulse in 1995, with a superb album featuring MICHAEL BRECKER. In 1996 he recorded a special album with the music of BURT BACHARACH. In 1998 he changed labels again and recorded a interesting latin album and an album featuring STANLEY CLARKE for TelArc. While he avoids modern conventions and the trappings of the moment, Tyner's sound remains contemporary to this day.

Tyner's full use of the piano's keyboard, with a striking exploitation of dynamics, sets him aside from more introverted players like Bill Evans and Keith Jarret. Their "musique de chambre" links them more with the European-oriented piano tradition, whereas Tyner follows the track back to the roots of the Afro-American quintessence of jazz music.

Tyner's music has been a major influence over the adoption in jazz of quartal and quintal harmonies, modes and pentatonic scales. He achieved a revived appreciation as a major player in the international jazz scene, a status he continues to maintain.

©2000 Leon Kerkstra. JRC.  JAZZ RESOURCE CENTER