Pianist McCoy Tyner's artistry and innovation embrace a multitude of styles, from African and Latin rhythms to the modal harmonies of the post-bebop era. His amazing versatility has enabled him to excel in a wide variety of settings.
Born Alfred McCoy Tyner on Dec. 11, 1938, Tyner grew up in the fertile musical hotbed of Philadelphia. His parents imbued him with a love for music from an early age. His mother encouraged him to explore his musical interests through formal training.
I love to play ballads. I think it's because it shows that you have some passion in your life. - McCoy Tyner
McCoy's decision to study piano was reinforced when he encountered the legendary bebop pianist Bud Powell, who was a neighbor of the family's. Another major influence on Tyner's playing was Thelonious Monk, whose percusive attacks would inform Tyner's signature style.
As a teenager in the 50s, Tyner often found opportunities to learn directly from other notable Philly-based musicians. He played with numerous natives of the thriving hometown jazz scene, including trumpeter Lee Morgan and the Heath Brothers, and even led his own septet for a while.
When Tyner and Philadelphian saxophonist John Coltrane first played together, Tyner was just 17 and Coltrane was still busy making history with Miles Davis' band. But John often confided his interest in leading his own band with Tyner.
While Tyner patiently waited for Coltrane to leave Miles' group and start his own band, another saxophonist, Benny Golson invited Tyner to join him and trumpeter Art Farmer in forming a New York-based ensemble, Jazztet.
Tyner finally joined Coltrane in 1965 for the classic album My Favorite Things, and remained at the core of what became one of the most seminal groups in jazz history, The John Coltrane Quartet. The band, which also included drummer Elvin Jones and bassist Jimmy Garrison, had an extraordinary chemistry, fostered in part by Tyner's almost familial relationship with Coltrane.
Tyner's inventive block chords distinguished him from other pianists, and became essential to the group's sound. Both Tyner and Coltrane embraced Eastern musical ideas, such as pentatonic scales and modal structures, which elevated the group's performances to a spiritual levels.
In 1965, after over five years with Coltrane's quartet, Tyner left the group to explore his destiny as a composer and bandleader. But when Tyner broke out as a leader, he found that the American musical landscape was changing, with rock-n-roll replacing jazz as the darlings of music consumers.
I never felt intimidated by John Coltrane, because I knew his mother, his cousin Mary, and his family. He used to pat me on the back,"This is my little brother, here."-McCoy Tyner
Through faith and determination, Tyner prevailed as a soloist and sideman. Among his major projects is a 1967 album entitled The Real McCoy, on which he was joined by saxophonist Joe Henderson, bassist Ron Carter and fellow Coltrane alumnus Elvin Jones. His 1972 Grammy-award nomination album Sahara, broke new ground by the sounds and rhythms of Africa.
Tyner has always expanded his vision of the musical landscape and incorporated new elements, whether from distant continents or diverse musical influences. More recently he has arranged for big bands, employed string arrangements, and even reinterpreted popular music.
Tyner's vibrant playing with John Coltrane sounds as fresh and hard-hitting as it did 40 years ago, and it continues to influence legions of pianists.