McCoy Tyner's piano style is revered and admired not only in jazz annals, but also by great musicians regardless of genre. From his angular runs and carefully controlled rhythmic dexterity, to his harmonic sophistication, overall technical brilliance and flexibility, even novices can immediately identify Tyner in any configuration or setting. His accomplishments as a session player, bandleader and composer have earned him multiple awards and the respect befitting a giant whose career exploded in the early '60s, when — as a 17-year-old — Tyner became part of the famed John Coltrane quartet.
"I was the youngest member of the group," Tyner says, recalling his early time with the band. "[Coltrane] was a combination big brother and father figure. I learned so much from him. Not just about music, but life and business. He started his own record company and had his own publishing company. He always looked to the future. He always had his own sound, and that for me is the most important thing as a musician — that you maintain your individuality. That's what I listen for when I hear young musicians or musicians who are not familiar to me. If you have your own sound, then we can get to other things like whether we can get along or not.
"In the Coltrane band we were really a family, but it was a situation where we grew and learned from each other. I still play a lot of those songs in my shows. But I also started writing my own music with him, and learned how vital it is as a composer that you write as often as you can and challenge yourself to find something fresh and different to say."
Tyner teamed with bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones in the quartet's incredible rhythm section from 1960-65. His brisk lines, crackling solos and ability to sustain a composition's intensity and drama without being overwhelmed by Coltrane's volcanic attack was a key element in the band's success. Yet, while his time with Coltrane was an epic period, Tyner's post-quartet achievements are equally spectacular.
Since his 1967 breakthrough LP The Real McCoy — which featured saxophonist Joe Henderson, bassist Ron Carter and fellow Coltrane alumnus Elvin Jones — Tyner has made numerous magnificent recordings with large and small groups. He's explored international sounds, won several critics' polls and earned multiple Grammy awards. He also received a 2002 Jazz Master Award from the National Endowment of the Arts and a 2008 Presidential Merit Award from the Grammy Foundation.
Tyner cites two legendary figures as major influences. "My mother used to own a beauty shop in Philadelphia, and the Powell family didn't live that far from us," he recalled. "If my mother didn't have a lot of customers, she would tell me to go out there and jam, have a good time, because she loved music so much.
"So one day my hero Bud Powell sat down at the piano. I was so tickled I couldn't believe it. The things he was doing were incredible. Bud was such a genius that he did things behavior-wise that were a bit strange.
"Later I met Thelonious Monk, and he was amazing as well. He could sit there and construct things off the top of his head that were unbelievable. Those two, and of course Art Tatum, were the ones I would call influences. But as much as I admired them, I always made an effort not to be so influenced I tried to play like them. First, you couldn't do it, and second, it would mess up your mind, both as a player and a composer."
Tyner has since worked with a host of greats and mentored numerous young musicians. One he speaks of most fondly is saxophonist Azar Lawrence — partly, it seems, because Lawrence's relationship with Tyner mirrors the one he once had with Coltrane. "Azar was just a youngster when he started playing with me," Tyner recalled. "He idolized Coltrane, but he was smart enough even as young man to know he couldn't be Coltrane the Second. The influence was there, and it's still there today, but he knew how to build and develop his own style. I didn't have to keep reminding him not to try and do what Coltrane did. He quickly moved in a different direction, and that's when I knew how great he could become."
Tyner recorded for many companies from the late '60s until 2005, when he joined forces with the Blue Note Jazz Club in New York. And now, he's forged a deal that's proven beneficial in many ways: Tyner is represented by Blue Note Management, and through them, he's also formed a publishing company and record label. Under the banner of McCoy Tyner Music, he's helmed many diverse projects. They range from a septet date with several of New York's finest saxophonists to a quartet album pairing him with saxophonist Joe Lovano, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Jeff Watts. There's another release, Guitars, on which Tyner, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Jack DeJohnette join guitarists Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot, John Scofield and Nashville's Bela Fleck. He's also done a solo piano date and a duet session with Glover.
"At this stage of my life I've been fortunate to have done some wonderful things, but I'm not ready to quit," says Tyner. "My reason for starting a publishing company and record company is making sure about the quality of what I do and having control over the content. As long as I'm playing music, I want everything that goes out there under my name to be a high-quality project. The easiest way to ensure that is to be responsible for it yourself."
Tyner's trio appears Thursday at TPAC along with tap-dance sensation Savion Glover in the inaugural Ora's Concert to benefit Vanderbilt University's Division of Nephrology and Hypertension and the American Kidney Fund. Ora's Alliance works on several fronts to assist patients suffering with end-stage kidney disease while also increasing public awareness of the illness. Its inspiration is Ora G. Manning, an educator and esteemed public servant who succumbed to end-stage renal disease.
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