Monday, March 16, 2020

Remembering McCoy Tyner

It just hit me that I never wrote a post saluting McCoy Tyner, after he passed away on March 6. Many other people have spoken more eloquently about the great pianist's legacy but if I'm going to salute Andy Gill and David Roback, I need to say a few words about Tyner. His music probably has as great an impact on my perspective as the other two, non-jazz players.

Matthew Shipp posted on Facebook recently, pondering what the world might have been like had John Coltrane not gotten Tyner in his quartet. They inspired each other to develop a musical that would not have come out the same way in a different context, Shipp explained. It's a perfect example of how jazz requires a musician to both interact with the players around you and to also develop your own strong individual voice, which feeds back into the group interaction, making it a powerful loop.

The first John Coltrane song I remember hearing, and knowing what it was him, was "My Favorite Things." It was the early '80s and I heard it on one of the evening jazz shows on WYEP-FM. It might have been the show "Fat Tuesday," the name of whose host escapes me. The choice of that song in a jazz context came as kind of a surprise to me - a lightweight tune from The Sound of Music that somehow got lumped in with the Christmas season. But the vamp that the rhythm section played underneath Coltrane gave it a more serious quality. I feel like the version I heard was the single version, because I have a vague recollection of the DJ talking about how he didn't have time to the whole 14-minute version. The idea that this tune could be played so long intrigued me. Someday I would need to check it out, I thought.

Time went by before I bought my first Coltrane album, but when I did, it was My Favorite Things. It was one of those moments where I felt like I had been given the keys to enter a new musical world that only certain people could understand. That vamp on the title track was every more exciting now. Plus, Tyner tempered that with some his own solo that had an almost regal feel to it.

I didn't quite grasp everything on the album at first. "Summertime" took great liberties with the melody and had a lot of tension and release that kept me scratching my head. But Tyner offered the one part of that song that kept me coming back. Following Steve Davis' bass solo, Tyner introduces a two-chord lick that offers a break for Elvin Jones to add some fills. That lick was so funky that it kept me coming back, realizing that the whole thing might not make sense to me yet, but it was slowly unfold. That album also made me appreciate the way subtle touches can make a great song go over the top in terms of excellent. The example I think of Jones' press roll at the end of "My Favorite Things." The way he releases it with a cymbal crash at the end absolutely slayed me. The same goes for the closing of "Everytime We Say Goodbye," which follows it on Side One. It says these guys are on to something and they're letting you in on it.

Tyner came to Pittsburgh in the summer of 1986. It was a Sunday night and he played some ballroom in Station Square because the tent where he was supposed to play outside had blown down, or something like that. I was worried that I wouldn't get in (I was a mere 18 at the time), but there was no problem. At this point my recollections of the show aren't too detailed. Emily Remler (living in town at the time) opened the show. Tyner played with a trio that I think had Louis Hayes on drums and Avery Sharpe on bass guitar. He was a big fellow with a deep voice. And he played with a thunderous attack on the piano. (Someone later told me that a piano has to be tuned both before and after Tyner plays it, due to his force on the keys.)

Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary only has a brief soundbyte of talking from Tyner, interspersed with a live performance. When he speaks, he explains that the quartet played the way they did because they had to, as if playing that way was required in order to live. That devotion to music is something to which we should all aspire.

Thanks, Mr. Tyner. I hope the Quartet has reunited and you're all playing together again. 


Unknown said...

As a deadhead, I got turned on to John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner from an old interview I read with Bob Weir, where he talks about his philosophy of playing with the band and how it was shaped by Tyner's playing with Coltrane. From there, I started to dig into that music. His contributions to jazz, improvisation, and music in general cannot be underestimated.

shanleymusic said...

True that! Thanks for reading.