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McCoy Tyner’s Simple, Revolutionary Sound

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Read: Thelonious Monk’s quiet, slow conquest of the worldFrom 1962 to 1965, that group—rounded out by Elvin Jones on drums and Jimmy Garrison on bass—produced one of the most impressive runs in music history, including classics like Crescent and Impressions, and A Love Supreme, a top contender for the greatest jazz record ever. Aside from…
McCoy Tyner’s Simple, Revolutionary Sound

From 1962 to 1965, that group—rounded out by Elvin Jones on drums and Jimmy Garrison on bass—produced one of the most impressive runs in music history, including classics like Crescent and Impressions, and A Love Supreme, a top contender for the greatest jazz record ever. Aside from Coltrane, Tyner was the pivotal member of the group. “When you are thinking of Coltrane playing ‘My Favorite Things’ or ‘A Love Supreme,’ you may be thinking of the sound of Mr. Tyner almost as much as that of Coltrane’s saxophone,” writes the critic Ben Ratliff.

Coltrane was at the time rewriting not only what a saxophonist could play, but also what any improviser could do, and Tyner’s accompaniment laid a foundation for his boss’s work. “My current pianist, McCoy Tyner, holds down the harmonies, and that allows me to forget them,” Coltrane said in 1961. “He’s sort of the one who gives me wings and lets me take off from the ground from time to time.”

Tyner attributed the band’s success to his and Coltrane’s shared background in R&B music, but Tyner wasn’t just recycling old blues tricks. To hold those harmonies down, he reached for unusual modes—alternatives to the familiar Western scale—and left room for experimentation by using chords with the interval of a fourth (think “Here Comes the Bride”). By sidestepping the third note of the scale, Tyner could make the music seem neither major nor minor. The openness lent itself to sweeping vistas of sound. Meanwhile, Tyner added rhythmic propulsion with his thumping left hand, creating something like a cubist rendition of 1920s stride piano.

As the pianist, composer, and critic Ethan Iverson wrote in a 2018 essay, Tyner didn’t get much critical respect at the time. Write-ups of Coltrane’s band tended to disparage Tyner’s range as limited—though they often ignored him altogether in favor of the saxophonist. But the style he created transformed the way the piano is played in jazz, effectively influencing those who took it up after him. (Tyner’s influence was not limited to jazz. Bob Weir, the Grateful Dead’s innovative rhythm guitarist, has said he learned to accompany Jerry Garcia by imitating Tyner’s backing of Coltrane.)

“No one—not Art Tatum, not Powell, not Monk, not Bill Evans—dropped a bomb on jazz pianists quite like McCoy Tyner,” Iverson wrote. “There was pre-McCoy and post-McCoy, and that was all she [w]rote.”

Tyner’s place in the pantheon would have been secure if he’d never recorded another track after quitting Coltrane’s band, whose sound was, by the mid-’60s, too loud and chaotic for Tyner’s tastes. Tyner struggled to get gigs in the ensuing years, leading to his nearly quitting music. His experience doesn’t speak well for how America treats its greatest artists, though Tyner remembered the period with equanimity. (“Sometimes struggle’s good—it gives you conviction,” he told me in 2006. “You know, you might say caviar is terrible, but you gotta eat that caviar first … Give me a sandwich, I’m fine.”)

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