The jazz pianist, composer and bandleader McCoy Tyner has died aged 81. Best known as a member of the “classic” John Coltrane Quartet between 1960 and 1965, in a career of over 50 years Tyner developed one of the most influential styles of modern jazz piano and produced a wide range of varied yet distinctive music.
Tyner grew up in Philadelphia where there was a thriving jazz scene in the 50s. He started learning piano when he was 13 and had some classical training.
He first met Coltrane in 1957 and they developed a friendship and musical understanding despite more than ten years age difference. Coltrane told him that he would call him to fill the piano chair whenever he had a group of his own, which finally came about in 1960.
This was around the time of the beginnings of modal jazz, where improvisation is based on scales rather than chords, giving the musicians a wider range of possibilities. The Coltrane quartet was in the vanguard of this development.
Coltrane said in 1961, “My current pianist, McCoy Tyner, holds down the harmonies, and that allows me to forget them. He’s sort of the one who gives me wings and lets me take off from the ground from time to time.”
Tyner developed his own style which involved heavy left-handed chords set against tinkling lines and making use of distinctive modal voicings (combinations of notes to give a particular sound). The forcefulness of this style did not prevent Tyner from being sensitive and delicate interpreter of ballads.
“What you don’t play is sometimes as important as what you do play,” Tyner later explained “I would leave space, which wouldn’t identify the chord so definitely to the point that it inhibited other voicings.”
While he was with the quartet, Tyner recorded as a sideman on some of the classic Blue Note albums of the 60s and after he left Coltrane, unhappy with the new freer direction his music was taking, recorded under his own name for the label. But the late 60s were not a good time for jazz and he briefly considered getting a day job.
By 1972, when he signed a new contract with the Milestone label, things had improved. He was able to define his own music independently of the two dominant trends of the time: jazz fusion and free jazz. He drew on Latin, African and Indian musics and recorded a number of albums with larger groups.
From this point on, Tyner played in a wide range of contexts going from big bands down to playing solo, but appeared most commonly with a trio.
For Tyner music was more directly linked to spirituality than to politics, something he shared with Coltrane. He had become a Muslim while in his teens. He told Nat Hentoff “To me living and music are all the same thing. And I keep finding out more about music as I learn more about myself, my environment, about all kinds of different things in life…
“I play what I live… I just want to write and play my instrument as I feel.”