Mountains of Sound: the Music of McCoy Tyner

McCoy Tyner at Newport Jazz Festival, 1998.

What resounds in many admiring ears and in the many panegyrics that followed in the wake of piano master McCoy Tyner’s death last weekend at the age of eighty-one is the colossal sound he pulled from his instrument: his left hand—with wrist high to get more leverage—thundering octaves that catapulted up from that low bass toward the middle of the keyboard to grab jagged chords. The right hand joined in either with simultaneous hammer blows of its own or to  draw out fiery skeins of barbed, frenetic melody: a dance of life or death or both. Like John Coltrane, musical and spiritual leader of the famed quartet of which Tyner was a vital cohesive force during his tenure in the group over the first half of the 1960s, the pianist could unleash avalanches of sound or provide the spreading terrain over which the saxophonist unleashed his torrents.

Too little praised in this week’s tributes was Tyner’s sensitivity. Great musicians are great listeners, a quality especially crucial for improvising chamber players in whose front ranks stood Tyner. These artists do not suppress their identity when in concert with others, but allow it to feed and flourish on their partners’ ideas, inclinations, genius.

Already memorialized for the monumental dimensions of his pianism, Tyner had, as his admirers and emulators also know, a huge range that was as much about subtlety, calm, the thoughtful aside, and whispered affirmation, as it was about percussive outpourings. Tyner departed Coltrane’s band in 1965 because he felt it was getting too loud and jumbled.

A watershed pianist, Tyner was a central influence on his colleagues and younger musicians during his lifetime, and will remain so after it. All jazz keyboardists refer to him in ways large or small, conscious or unconscious.

Tyner made jazz history because he understood jazz history. As a teenager in musically rich Philadelphia, where Coltrane befriended the younger musician (twelve years his junior), Tyner became obsessed with the bebop greats, Bud Powell and Thelonius Monk. These two occupied opposite ends of the modern jazz spectrum, from the fleet to the sparse, and Tyner learned important lessons from both.

In his Jazz Roots solo album of 2000, Tyner offered his appreciation of, and creative response to, his forbears—not just Powell and Monk, but also Scott Joplin, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, and others. Tyner had a huge range of jazz piano styles in his hands and heart. Jazz Roots closes with that chestnut—often reduced to mush by lesser figures—“Misty” written by Erroll Garner, another important piano stylist. Tyner begins his encounter with this standard as if ventriloquizing himself: while the drone bass threatens to burst its shackles into sforzando, the higher textures corruscate as if ready to launch into a dazzling fantasy. But the storm recedes, Tyner treads gently into the damp light; his elegant broken chords shimmer like Garner’s. Soon though, stride piano left hand and glittering arpeggio runs conjure Art Tatum, the mightiest of the jazz piano titans. This gives way to textures of his own devising that echo from the Coltrane years—as if Tyner himself is mingling on the keyboard with his heroes and a younger version of himself. At last Tyner returns to the crystalline repose of Garner with a dash of modal McCoy thrown in on the way out—not as a taunt but as a thank you.


Yes, none were bolder that Tyner, but he was a wonderful ballad player, too. Coltrane understood this better than anyone, as can be heard on the albums Quartets and John Coltrane and Johnny Hartmanboth on the Impulse label from 1963. Also from Impulse that same year came the numinous, suave, and swinging Nights of Ballads & Blues with Tyner fronting his own trio. Tyner had extraordinary gifts for creating atmosphere while illuminating an interior truth of a song even when—perhaps especially when—playing with others. His billowing chords and arabesques on Rogers and Hart’s “You are Too Beautiful” on the Coltrane/Hartman collaboration caress the object of desire in sound.

In extolling this immortal of the piano pantheon there is a universe to choose from. Tyner made more than seventy albums as a leader and dozens more as a sideman. With Coltrane he was involved in more than thirty, though a few of those were released after the saxophonist’s death in 1967. I’ve heard perhaps a quarter of Tyner’s vast oeuvre, and I own a dozen of his recordings, mostly on the Blue Note; he signed with the label in 1967 and spent five years there. He launched this phase of his recording career with The Real McCoy. Besides tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson, and Miles Davis’ bassist Ron Carter, Tyner was joined on the date by his Coltrane bandmate, drummer Elvin Jones, who adds abundant kinetic energy to the already unbeatable swing, launched right from the opening track with “Passion Dance”—an exuberant etude in joyful angularity.

Tyner had worked for Blue Note many times before The Real McCoy, recording at the famed Van Gelder Studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey from the beginning of the 1960s. There he’d contributed to sessions led by Lee Morgan, Blue Mitchell, Wayne Shorter, Hank Mobley, among others.  One of those others was the soulful tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, who’d also spent time in Tyner’s Philadelphia playing with the organist, Jimmy Smith.  Like Coltrane, too, Tyner had put in lots of time in R&B groups growing up, so he fit right into the  Turrentine sound and style—the tenor man’s straight ahead grooves, his cool Latin numbers, and his ballads, too.

Tyner played on five of Turrentine’s Blue Note records; the first of these was from 1964, and its title, Mr. Natural, speaks to the ease of the collaboration, the generosity of the music—the eponymous naturalness of it all. The LP was recorded in September of 1964, three months before he did the seminal A Love Supreme with Coltrane and a year before he left that quartet. A Love Supreme is perhaps Tyner’s most famous recording, and there is immense breadth and energy to his playing, but also—especially in the “Psalm” that is the final movement of the suite—poise and stasis. The pianist provides both foundation and vaulting for Coltrane’s prayers and plaints.


So close chronologically to A Love Supreme and like it recorded at Van Gelder Studio, Mr. Natural is worlds away—a welcome walk in the secular fresh air. Tyner appears as clever musical chameleon, who even when and while he changes remains authentically himself. The consummate chamber musician and eager, expert listener enthralls and enlivens right from the waltzing blues of the title track.

The B-side kicks off with another blues, “Tacos.”  The requisite Latin spice is imparted by conga player Ray Barretta, heard for the second time on the LP after having joined in on “Mr. Natural.” Tyner introduces “Tacos” accompanied at first by just conga and bass, veteran Blue Noter Bob Cranshaw leaving plenty of space for the rest of the trio by playing on just the first and third beats of each bar. As if sampling the best street food, Tyner assumes the sardonic verve of a pianist like Wynton Kelly (and later Herbie Hancock)—he’s sparsely incisive, the laconic cool brightened by sparkling arcs of figuration.


Lee Morgan on trumpet alongside Turrentine on saxophone step in to the scene to deliver the strutting tune with sly precision, braced by the electrifying Elvin Jones on drums.  Morgan wrote the number and he gets the honor of the first solo: the trumpeter is as brash as ever,  he holds back for his opening gambit, starts into a long line rising in volume and melodic amplitude towards its goal, the arrival marked by Tyner’s re-entry into the fray with a crisp chord more impulse than force. Morgan and the rest take off. Tyner and Jones are the twin motors capable of much more horsepower than called for here, their spontaneous colloquy and spirited collisions the product of all those Coltrane years together. Whether at idle or revving, the pair thrills. They thrive off each other, emboldened by the rest of the ensemble even as they bolster it.

Beneath Turrentine’s improvisation Tyner explores more complex syncopations that spar and jostle with the drums. Tyner expands the temporal scale of his rhythmic structures and in so doing builds intensity, before the vigor slackens again for the start of his solo. This he begins with an initial aloofness, but he soon warms to his tasty theme, ripping off a bluesy right hand run up and back over a wide expanse of the keyboard. With his sticks, Jones breaks into a chattering double time that spurs Tyner to some disjointed, yet agile arpeggios. Pulling back on the throttle, the pianist mulls over a bluesy riff, tries some cool quips intermixed with virtuosic skeins, before getting down to stubborn chords that spar with Jones, who gets in some climactic bashes. Tyner implies more power than he deploys: enough to thrill, but not overwhelm.  His exuberance never strains.

The crucial ingredients Tyner added to this jaunty blues represent just one of the  myriad examples of musical diversity and ingenuity that he always adapted to those he played with.

Tyner could create mountains of sound and rouse sublime thoughts, but it is his musical range that ensures his legacy as securely as do the grand visionary moments that he fostered and felt. It was in listening to others that he sounded most like himself.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at