It seems that when jazz pianist McCoy Tyner is mentioned, it’s invariably in the context of his work with John Coltrane. This is fine, as far as it goes, and quite appropriate, since the music (and history) he made as part of the “Classic Quartet” is enough to ensure his immortality in jazz circles. However, a compelling case could be made that he has pound for pound been the most prolific, consistently brilliant, and straight-out important jazz musician of the last half-century.
Let’s review the file. While employed by Coltrane (and make no mistake, far from being “merely” the pianist, he was also contributing compositions, like “Aisha” from Ole Coltrane), he simultaneously was making remarkable albums under his own name. That he was also appearing with compatriots (like Wayne Shorter) and appearing on masterpiece after masterpiece for the Blue Note label would seal the deal. But this all occurred in the 1960s. Not enough people know that Tyner continued to make astonishing music into the ’70s and has not slowed down since. Indeed, his streak of albums starting with Expansions from the late ’60s, through the mid-to-late ’70s with Trident, represents a body of work that, by itself, can stand alongside anything anyone has ever done (in any genre, by the way).
Hyperbole? Hardly. Tyner epitomizes the restless spirit and inspiration that characterizes all of our great artists. He was already a master (for whatever that’s worth—and for the purposes of any discussion about jazz, it’s worth a great deal) by the mid-’60s; his work with Coltrane could be studied and analyzed the way entire catalogs of music get dissected by critics. He was neither sated nor satisfied though, so he kept pushing and his work became increasingly ambitious, wide in scope and rewarding. His playing on albums like Expansions, Extensions, Enlightenment and Sahara is extraordinary, combining the proficiency and power with the uniquely affirmative expression he ceaselessly conjures up and conveys. It does, at times, sound like two people are playing two different pianos: there is so much going on, such emotion and feeling, but with little if any of the harshness or imperial perfection of late Coltrane. Similar in this regard to Charles Mingus, there is a constant intensity and enormity in the playing, but instead of overwhelming it buoys you and carries you along.
In the ’70s, Tyner began incorporating a far-reaching sensibility into his compositions, and there are traces of Africa and the Far East interwoven into the mix. This is world music in the literal sense of the term, and much of the material on the aforementioned Asante and Sahara (both revealing titles on multiple levels) sound less like jazz and more like an uncategorizable other type of music: deeply spiritual and incredibly powerful, yet engaging and even, at times, ebullient. Many of Tyner’s compositions manage to be more than music; they are moments that are impossible to define, unfamiliar yet recognizable, and seemingly in touch with sensations we are not accustomed to accessing.
Fortunately for us all, he is still very much alive and well. Seeing him perform is an opportunity that won’t last forever: catch him if you can.