McCoy Tyner

Three things I like most about pianist McCoy Tyner: his combination of elegance and strength; his ambiguous quartal voicings; and the integrity of his playing. Tyner is an energetic, far-reaching player, qualities that can be traced to his tenure with John Coltrane, and it continued through something like Enlightenment (1973), not reviewed below but a powerful live record. Whether he’s in, out, or somewhere between, Tyner always feels connected to a sturdy personal core. I don’t have a lot of his own records listed, but of course he can be heard with Coltrane and also as a sideman on various Blue Note ‘60s dates.

Reaching Fourth
Nov. 1962 / Impulse

Extracted from Coltrane’s quartet, Tyner relaxes a bit on this trio effort with bassist Henry Grimes and drummer Roy Haynes. The catchy original “Reaching Fourth” showcases the pianist’s trademark harmonies (ambiguity within modes) and it’s the most valuable number on the disc. The moody vamp treatment of “Old Devil Moon” isn’t shabby either. Elsewhere are a tender “Goodbye” (can’t help thinking of Evans’ “Peace Piece” when I hear it), the lazy original “Blues Back”, and the speedy “Have You Met Miss Jones” with Haynes on brushes.

Most of McCoy’s playing comes from his internal wellspring of traditional knowledge and feeling, doused with those special voicings that open things up. Grimes and Haynes play a straight support role, and they’re quite weighty in the mix. (I’m not thrilled with the slightly fuzzy piano sound, though.) The performances are fine, and the album (a scant 34 minutes) is good, not great. More of a brief holiday than a major statement.

The Real McCoy
Apr. 1967 / Blue Note RVG

Joe Henderson, Ron Carter, and Elvin Jones join pianist Tyner for a strong quartet date that features five sterling compositions by the leader. “Passion Dance” delivers exactly what you would want from these players in an upbeat modal jam, with McCoy hammering fourths and sideslipping around the tonic. When Joe steps up to solo, the pot boils over. Hints of classic Coltrane are unavoidable in this track, but Henderson puts forth a unique tenor voice and has his own rapport with Tyner. The two sound very good together, and the bass/drum team is also complimentary, needless to say. “Four By Five” mixes meters and swings hard, while the ballads “Contemplation” and “Search for Peace” come cloaked in solemnity and gentleness. “Blues on the Corner” avoids 12-bar status quo by altering a couple of chords early in the form, the sort of surprising harmonic substitution Tyner would usually insert spontaneously into any other blues. Here it becomes part of the tune.

The album’s consistency is due to the full quartet treatment of all five tracks (no extended spotlights on the leader) and Tyner’s solid artistry. He has a serious outlook on jazz, yet the album is just plain fun as well, especially in the three faster pieces. The two slower tracks are enriched but not overburdened by mood. Henderson gets a lot of air time, and he earns every bar of it.

Time for Tyner
May 1968 / Blue Note RVG

With support from Bobby Hutcherson (vibes), Herbie Lewis (bass), and Freddie Waits (drums), Tyner drenches three originals and three standards in his typically impressive piano work. The invigorating “May Street” is the best track, and the irresistible opening groove of “African Village” forecasts a lot of boogie rhythms of the 1990s. “Little Madimba” is good as well. I’ve returned to these three selections many times and they always raise my spirit, for lack of a more analytical description. McCoy doesn’t hold back on the standards either - he flows busily through a solo rendition of “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face”, gives “Surrey with the Fringe” an anxious ride, and an off-center bass vamp shakes up “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was”. This may not be the most essential Tyner document in the world, but he delivers the good stuff on every track.

The only problem with the disc is the weird mix, where piano and vibes are sometimes buried beneath the bass, which actually takes up a wider stereo position than anything else. The drums are off to the side, and some of the cymbal overtones come and go depending on whether Hutch’s mike is turned on or off. It’s as if Rudy ran errands and let his parents record the session. But you don’t really notice the weirdness unless you’ve got headphones on.

Apr. 1995 / Impulse

In which Tyner makes a homecoming to the revived Impulse label, his trio (bassist Avery Sharpe, drummer Aaron Scott) joined by tenor sax superman Michael Brecker, produced by Michael Cuscuna, recorded by Rudy Van Gelder...all the stars aligned, one might say. Still a master of momentum and tension, Tyner excels at the piano and brings a few marvelous original tunes as well. The opener “Flying High” is built upon a simple modal sequence that indeed soars in a stirring way. Scott’s drums come and go at just the right times – a piece like this is sold by its dynamics – and while the tune would still be wonderful played by lesser mortals, the solos from Tyner and Brecker push it skyward. “Changes” has the same joyous character and great soloing but is more aggressive, and the ballad “Where Is Love” has a nice character. While Tyner isn’t an especially complicated composer, he can create inspiring spaces, and these three pieces all fit that bill.

On par with the above tracks are two of the cover tunes, Monk’s “I Mean You” and Coltrane’s “Impressions”. It’s risky to include a lone Monk tune on any album, as his compositions stand apart from almost everything else in the jazz universe, but somehow this spirited and true-to-the-manuscript version fits in. (I’m of the opinion that if you feel like you have to replace Monk’s chord changes, you should really just play somebody else’s music, or write your own.) “Impressions” is an obvious choice given Tyner’s history and Brecker being one of the few tenors who could possibly follow Trane’s fire-breathing precedent, and this performance lives up to expectation.

The remainder of the album is okay, including a couple more originals that fall below the others. The elementary number “Happy Days” turns into a groove that echoes “All Blues” in a bland style, and none of the solos really lift the piece. “Mellow Minor” has more improvisational heat, particularly when Brecker gets wound up, although it too contains a rather empty theme. (And what’s with the virtuoso Tyner doing all those downward wipes on the piano? That’s like John McLaughlin doing pick scrapes.) Tyner takes “Blues Stride” and “Good Morning Heartache” by himself, almost busily enough to sound like two pianists, though the latter’s ache gets lost in the glitz. Anyway, “Flying High”, “Changes”, and “Impressions” are the real attractions here.

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