Another Gentle Giant Gone: McCoy Tyner

At some point in 1988, I made a list of musicians I wanted to meet (and, as an autograph junkie, to get albums signed). Despite my affinity for the guitar, all three names on my list were jazz pianists: Joanne Brackeen, Toshiko Akiyoshi, and McCoy Tyner. Remarkably enough, during a 15-month period, I would get to meet and speak to each of them briefly and — YES! — get autographs.

McCoy Tyner, the piano titan best known for his work in the John Coltrane Quartet, played the Clearwater Jazz Holiday in 1989, and I got to meet him. What do I remember most? When he shook my hand, mine disappeared in his; it was huge! It reminded me of my interview with Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ spectacular tight end Jimmy Giles; my hand disappeared there, too. The other aspect was his warm and gentle nature. McCoy Tyner was truly a gentle giant, although he was not always gentle with those piano keys!

Alfred McCoy Tyner (December 11, 1938 – March 6, 2020) left us this morning at the age of 81. His brilliance as a sideman, leader, soloist, and composer will forever shine. He played with everybody who was anybody. His recording career includes (and these are minimum counts): 75 albums as a leader, 35 with John Coltrane, and another 50 with some of the greatest jazz players of his time.

Tyner first recorded with Curtis Fuller in 1959. In 1960, he made albums with Fuller, Julian Priester, the Jazztet, and Freddie Hubbard. He had joined the Jazztet with Art Farmer and Benny Golson briefly before signing on with Coltrane.

In September, he played on a Coltrane album which was released on Roulette. Then, in October, there were four Atlantic recording sessions which spawned numerous legendary albums, none more so than the one named for Coltrane’s most famous interpretation: My Favorite Things.

Tyner would play on every Coltrane album through the November 1965 recording Meditations (with the exception of Coltrane’s lovely 1962 collaboration with Duke Ellington). As Pharoah Sanders helped change the direction of the band, Tyner left and was replaced by Alice Coltrane. During Tyner’s tenure with the John Coltrane Quartet (Jimmy Garrison, bass, and Elvin Jones, drums, on most of those recordings), they produced such amazing albums as Olé (1961), the Village Vanguard recordings and European tour with Eric Dolphy (1961), Africa Brass (1961), John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman (1963), A Love Supreme (1964), and Ascension (1961).

Also included were albums that surfaced later, such as the remarkable Live at the Half Note (1965, issued in 2005), the only live performance of A Love Supreme (1965, issued 2002), and two “lost” albums: Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album (1963, issued 2018) and Blue World (1964, issued 2019).

He was a regular sideman on dozens of Blue Note albums with Stanley Turrentine, Wayne Shorter, Lee Morgan, Grant Green, Hank Mobley, Bobby Hutcherson, Joe Henderson, Lou Donaldson, and Donald Byrd, a veritable who’s who. He played with Milt Jackson on some Limelight recordings, with Freddie Hubbard on Blue Note and Atlantic dates, and with Art Blakey on Impulse.

But McCoy Tyner truly came into his own as a composer and band leader. From 1962-64, he produced six albums for Impulse! (Coltrane’s primary label); his debut as a leader was Inception (that’s the one I had autographed). He switched to Blue Note for seven more LPs (1967-70), starting with The Real McCoy. The next 20 were on Milestone from 1972-81. From there on he recorded on a variety of labels.

Some albums of note (with more than 150 to cull, these are personal favorites: your mileage may vary). Atlantis (1974) was a stunning live double album featuring tenor man Azar Lawrence. Fly with the Wind (1976) was a ground-breaking orchestral masterpiece. Supertrios (1977) was a double album, the first with Ron Carter and Tony Williams, the second with Eddie Gomez and Jack deJohnette. The Greeting (1978) was another live recording with George Adams and Joe Ford on reeds. Dimensions (1984) featured a dynamic band with Gary Bartz, John Blake, and John Lee. Just Feelin’ (1991) turned Avery Sharpe loose on bass. Guitars (2008) found him with Ron Carter and Jack deJohnette and a procession of guitar players, including Béla Fleck, Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot, John Scofield, and Derek Trucks.

 

And one more. In 1981, Tyner assembled an incredible array of talent to perform on La Leyenda de la Hora (The Legend of the Hour) on Columbia. It featured Hubert Laws, flute; Bobby Hutcherson, vibraphone, marimba; Paquito D’Rivera, alto, soprano saxophones; Chico Freeman, tenor sax; Marcus Belgrave, trumpet, flugelhorn; Avery Sharpe, acoustic bass; Ignacio Berroa, drums; Daniel Ponce, percussion; and a string section including violinist John Blake conducted by William Fischer.

Whether you’re hearing McCoy Tyner for the first or hundredth time, his music will always sound fresh and new. He was and always will be a legend. And I got to shake his hand.

 

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