On stage, McCoy Tyner is ever improvising and exploring, uncovering new depths of emotion and expression through his piano and the musicians he plays with. As he puts it, "I like to stay organic and that means I like to keep the ideas flowing."
That focus on creativity and invention has served the Philadelphia-born pianist well over the course of one of jazz’s most storied careers. And today is the day to celebrate that impressive legacy as Tyner marks his 75th birthday.(For those really wanting to get into the spirit, you can catch Tyner on Friday and Saturday in Costa Mesa.)
I had the opportunity to interview Tyner a decade ago from his New York home. The idea was to preview his upcoming dates at Yoshi’s in Oakland, where Tyner for a few consecutive years held a January residency. (Imagine that, jazz at Yoshi’s.)
That dates in question found him leading two groups – a quartet that included Bobby Hutcherson (vibes), Cecil McBee (bass) and Jack DeJohnette (drums) and a trio with Christian McBride (bass) and Lewis Nash (drums).
Of course, over the course of his stellar career there are few jazz musicians of any renown Tyner hasn't at least jammed with. His own music is rooted in the fertile jazz and RB scene of early '50s Philadelphia. By his teens, the pianist was fronting his own group, leading jam sessions at his mother's beauty parlor, and winning talent contests. At 17, he met John Coltrane, a hero as saxophonist in Miles Davis' pioneering band.
A friendship developed, and something more. Tyner, 12 years younger, came to admire Coltrane as both a visionary musician and a big-brother figure. When the saxophonist left Davis in 1960 for a solo career, he brought Tyner – who had been playing in Art Farmer and Benny Golson's
Jazztet – into his band. With the addition of Jimmy Garrison (bass) and Elvin Jones (drums), the Coltrane quartet found both critical acclaim and commercial success. Propelled by its leader's restless spirit, the ensemble recorded such legendary albums as "My Favorite Things," "Live at the Village Vanguard," "Impressions," and "A Love Supreme."
"He was a lovely guy," Tyner told me regarding Trane. "He was a wonderful person. As a human being, I couldn't think of a better person to work for."
More than anything else, Coltrane was dedicated to music. Tyner spoke warmly of the saxophonist's drive, noting how he would sometimes rehearse new works backstage during concert intermissions.
"I remember we were working at the Jazz Workshop on Broadway (in San Francisco) and I had to see John about something early the next morning. I went by to see him and he came to the door and was fully dressed."
Tyner was about to compliment Coltrane on being such an early riser when he noticed his boss' crumpled suit and the saxophone strap around his neck.
"I could see his bed from the door and he had saxophone there. He had been practicing all night."
Tyner left Coltrane's band in 1965 as the saxophonist’s music grew less melodic and more free form. After his death two years later from liver cancer, a biographer approached Tyner with the thesis that the politics of the '60s had inspired much of Coltrane's music.
"He interviewed me and I tried to make the point that I didn't think that," Tyner recalled. "It was more a cultural interest that his music came out of, kind of a cultural evolution. He was on a mission. Music was his major outlet."
Tyner followed Coltrane's adventurous example through the whole of a solo career that began with "Inception" (1962). He has recorded with quartets ("The Real McCoy") and big bands ("Tender Moments),” revisited Coltrane's modal experiments ("Time For Tyner") and incorporated classical elements into his composing.
When others were advocating fusion in the early '70s, Tyner stuck with tradition. He collaborated with powerhouse rhythm sections (Ron Carter and Tony Williams, Eddie Gomez and DeJohnette) and legendary sax men (Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson). Through it all, the ideas have kept flowing.
"I don't want to rest on my laurels,” Tyner said. “I appreciate and I'm very thankful that I have the ability and the access to a lot of young and great players. It's nice and I enjoy it, being respected and people appreciating what I'm doing."
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