McCoy Tyner

Newport RompLive At Newport
Searchin'McCoy Tyner Plays Ellington
Song Of The New WorldSong Of The New World
Afro BlueSong Of The New World
Elvin (Sir) JonesTrident
Bluesin' For John C.Blues For Coltrane
UpdateThe Turning Point
ManalyucaLand Of Giants

McCoy Tyner photo 2



McCoy Tyner playlist



Contributor: Calvin Rydbom

I’ve had some good days in pursuit of listening to live music, some really good days. And then there have been some great days, like at the Tri-C Jazz Fest in around 1994 when I saw McCoy Tyner at the lunchtime show and Sonny Rollins in the evening. That was a great day. And since I saw Tyner first that day …

When I started this piece I decided to look up some Tyner bios. I found one that said he is an American jazz pianist known for his association with John Coltrane and a long solo career. I’m pretty sure I can do a bit better than that. I’m absolutely sure his contribution to music is a whole lot more than that.

Tyner was born in Philadelphia and was the oldest of three children. He had a mother who strongly encouraged in her children the appreciation of music and also the taking of music lessons. By the age of fifteen music was Tyner’s life. By the age of nineteen John Coltrane, of whom I hope it won’t be a spoiler to say played a large part in Tyner’s later career, was recording one of Tyner’s compositions. The Believer was recorded in January of 1958 but not released til 1964 on an album meant to capitalize on their success.

McCoy Tyner played in bands of Curtis Fuller, Freddie Hubbard and the Art Farmer & Benny Golson Jazztet before joining Coltrane in 1961. From then until 1965 he was a key part of the legendary Coltrane Quartet. In those years their styles greatly suited each other. They used similar scales, chord structures, phrasings, cascading melodic lines and rhythms. Not because he was part of Coltrane’s band but because he played that way as well. His odd way of playing in which he raises his left hand well above the keyboard gives his left handed playing an attacking sound, while his right hand often has a staccato sound to it. This was Tyner’s style, which he kept long after he left Coltrane in 1965 when Trane starting developing a more atonal and free jazz approach. Tyner left as he felt the music didn’t suit his own style and tastes, which had certainly been in sync with Coltrane’s earlier work. But it’s a mistake to think he started to develop his own career after they parted company, as he had released six albums as a leader while still in Coltrane’s group.

Because his solo work is so extensive I’ll be focusing simply on that facet of his career and ignoring the great years with the Quartet and any other work as a sideman. Although the Quartet era is represented in a sense as the first two pieces come from a time when he was still with Coltrane.

From his fifth, but first live, album Live At Newport from the summer of 1963 came a Tyner composition called Newport Romp. Now any song with Clark Terry on trumpet, as that may be the happiest sound in jazz, is going to be a romp. But this is just eight minutes of fun with a Tyner who isn’t so focused on chord structures as he is in having fun with Terry and alto sex player Charlie Mariano. You can hear the enjoyment coming off his piano during his run at around the two minute mark. And then at about the two and half minute mark when he backs off and lets the horn men play, it’s sorta pure joy.

It was smart of Tyner not to play with a sax player that often during those years. Especially when he recorded with Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones, and without Coltrane, as they did on McCoy Tyner Plays Ellington. Searchin’ was a track the Trane-less trio added a couple Latin percussionists to create a bluesy laid back number. And yes, laid back isn’t a sound you think about when you talk about adding Latin percussionists. The piece combines the Latin sound, which plays such a prominent role in Tyner’s career, with some very tight blues and one of Tyner’s many signatures, cascading melodic lines. It was the last album as a leader for almost three years, as well as coming less than a year before he left Coltrane.

He spent the next few years at Bluenote releasing a series of good, but not that groundbreaking, post bop albums which are very listenable but don’t really represent for me the creative spirit of his career. One of the tracks that does jump out at me from this era though is Little Madimba. Written by Tyner and on his Time For Tyner album, it’s essentially a duet of sorts with vibes master Bobby Hutcherson. As I said, his music had started to incorporate the Latin and African influences years before, but it certainly takes flight here. The song works as the musicians are clearly on the same wavelength and intent on laying down a very smooth and satisfying tone. Tyner does get a little tricky here, using something called a suspended chord in the piece, which he uses quite a bit in his career. Essentially, he omits the third and replaces it with a perfect fourth which creates an open sound with wider spacing before the fourth and fifth (usually) sort of crash into each other.

The 1970s saw Tyner moving to Milestone and releasing a series of groundbreaking albums that in many ways built on the work he did with the Coltrane Quartet. They are certainly innovative but in a way different than the fusion or free jazz movements popular at the time. Plus he would experiment with instruments rarely found in jazz such as the Japanese koto (a stringed instrument probably closes to the harpsichord), of course the harpsichord itself and a celeste.

One of those groundbreaking pieces was Sahara from the album of the same name. During the twenty minutes of the piece Tyner plays a koto, flute and even hand percussion along with his piano. The other three musicians on the record also move around a bit. For instance, drummer Alphonse Mouzon plays the intro on trumpet before going back to his drum set. It’s a great composition by Tyner that really signaled he was growing as an artist. Not just as a piano player mind you, but as an overall musical creator and artist.

Song Of The New World is among my favorite McCoy Tyner albums and one of the more overlooked. The idea of flutes, piccolos, tubas, oboes and euphoniums seemed as unique to me the first time I heard it in around 1980 as it does now. Sure jazz has had its share of big bands, and even a couple piano led ones, but this was a fairly unique mix of instruments. I love all five tracks, but first and foremost is Afro Blue. The piece had long been part of Coltrane’s repertoire, but Tyner certainly upstaged his old boss and friend on this occasion. It opens with some warm and certainly rich flute trills and some minimalistic percussion. Hubert Laws and Sonny Fortune actually trade flute lines, not exactly a jazz trademark. But this big lush rendition ends, both in real life and in its tone, when Tyner finishes it off with an almost savage yet oddly melodic solo that utilizes both the strength of his right and left hands.

The other favorite on the album, and a composition of Tyner’s, is Song Of The New World. Much like the previous song, in fact almost all the songs from the album, Tyner shows his gifts as an arranger by the way he positions the flute in the piece. Fortune and Laws again trade lines, although they seem more bright and cheery than in Afro Blue’s rich and stately playing. Tyner plays a solo that uses very rapid notes that at times he plays over the flutes, in what when I first listened to it I saw as a detriment.

As the years go by I see it differently, it’s meant to be a bit confusing. It’s also yet another song where Tyner’s interest in Latin music is obvious, and again to the benefit of the composition.

A little over a year later on Atlantis, on the album Atlantis, Tyner had jettisoned almost everything but that Latin influence. Atlantis is one of Tyner’s longest songs at eighteen minutes, allowing Tyner to compose a track that moves in and out of its Latin influences. Opening with bells and some percussion, most importantly the track introduced me to Guilherme Franco. Franco is one of those musicians who worked steadily for 35 years with everyone from Tyner to David Byrne and from Elvin Jones to David Johansen while recording one album as a leader and essentially staying unknown to everyone but those who hire him. His percussion work here needs to be heard and appreciated. As does the sax solo by Azar Lawrence which bleeds right into Tyner’s own solo so seamlessly you have to hear it to understand what I mean.

His next album, Trident, saw Tyner go a little more minimalistic than he had the previous couple albums by releasing his first trio album since 1964. Of course when the other two band mates are Elvin Jones on drums and Ron Carter on bass, a great trio album isn’t hard to accomplish. My favorite cut on the album is actually the tribute to Jones, Elvin (Sir) Jones. I love Tyner’s playing on this piece as it suggests something dark and mysterious, more than he usually reaches for. Highly textured, his playing is yet another time he makes it clear why he has remained at the top of his profession for 50 years. Carter and Jones add much to the piece as Carter’s bass almost seems to circle Jones with a bass line that moves in and out between Jones’ jarring snares.

Tyner has released a few albums that were tributes to Coltrane. 1991’s Remembering John and 1987’s Blues For Coltrane are both exceptional albums. From the 1987 effort comes Bluesin’ For John C. Tyner, who was the song’s composer, started out by taking a back seat and letting sax players Pharoah Sanders and David Murray carry the load followed by a really understated solo by bassist Cecil McBee that Tyner plays underneath of. When finally about two minutes into the piece he takes over, he does so in sort of a boxing match with drummer Roy Haynes. It’s six minutes of contrasting styles which probably had a lot to do with the album winning a performance Grammy in 1988.

The 1990s saw Tyner back in the big band format. Update from The Turning Point is probably my favorite from that period. Tyner’s solo is per usual amazing but it’s heavier than most of his solos. I’m taken more by some stylistic choices than usual though, as he plays in a way that really marches along and makes having a big band work all the better for it.

One things that impresses me about McCoy Tyner is that thirty nine years separate the first and the tenth piece on this list. I suppose though if I’m honest I love Manalyuca from Land Of Giants (2003) as it greatly resembles some of his best work from the 1960s. Strong Latin influence with a mix of ideas from both a melodic and a harmonic viewpoint. And there is that hand off of sorts when the musicians take their solos. Bassist Charnett Moffett, who is someone I’m really not that familiar with other than knowing he is the son of the longtime drummer for Ornette Coleman, really drew me in and caused me to go back and just listen to his work. That Tyner composed the song with the intent of giving each musician room to stretch is an understatement.

McCoy Tyner isn’t always listed among the first tier of all time greats, but he should be.


POSTSCRIPT (6th March 2020)

McCoy Tyner photo

McCoy Tyner (1938–2020)


McCoy Tyner’s official website

McCoy Tyner facebook

McCoy Tyner biography (Apple Music)

Calvin Rydbom’s fifth and most recent book, “The Akron Sound”, tells the story of a short-lived period in the 70s and early 1980s when Akron, Ohio was arguably one of the more important regions in the Midwest of the United States in the Punk Rock/New Wave scene. Calvin is also the Archivist and Contributing Author for the Akron Sound Museum, which celebrates the history of Akron Music from the early 1960s to the present.

TopperPost #339


  1. Ilkka Jauramo
    Aug 30, 2014

    Thanks for this brilliant story, much more than an ordinary Toppermost. Internet is not always that good a resource for the music of the 60s and 70s like you seemed to have noticed. When I listen to McCoy Tyner it is John Coltrane’s “OM” on the turntable. It is an awful album and a pain to listen. Lately I have totally ignored Coltrane’s playing and tried to catch Tyner’s piano. It is hard but possible and it makes this album almost enjoyable. Almost.

  2. Calvin Rydbom
    Aug 30, 2014

    It’s funny you should mention OM, as it was probably the last time Tyner was an official member of Trane’s band. The meanderings that are OM were recorded in October of 1965, although not released til after Coltrane’s death, it is a fine example of the change in direction Tyner didnt feel suited him.

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