Spiritual: How McCoy Tyner Lives On



It isn’t quite true that McCoy Tyner, who died earlier this month, was the last survivor of the John Coltrane Quartet. Reggie Workman, who for a while held the string bass chair that Jimmy Garrison would claim until Trane’s death, is alive and well, 82 years young, living, teaching and gigging in and around New York City.

There are many reasons to acknowledge Workman. One is that he played on and contributed mightily to what, in my view, stands, nearly sixty years on, as jazz music’s most stirring and emblematic performance: “Spiritual,” from Nov. 3, 1961, recorded near the end of the Coltrane band’s two-week residence at New York’s famed Village Vanguard night club.

The same can be said of McCoy Tyner’s piano playing on “Spiritual.” Indeed, the two of them, Workman and Tyner, don’t merely propel Coltrane, playing tenor and soprano saxophone, and Eric Dolphy, playing bass clarinet, to majestic heights. Each note by them, each chord, is, in its own right, dazzling and profound.

Nearly 14 minutes long, “Spiritual” unfolds through six more or less symmetrical sections. Parts one and six have Trane on saxophone stating the incantatory C-minor theme, resolutely and mournfully in the opening, more urgently and passionately at the close. (The theme is drawn from the song “Nobody Knows De Trouble I’ve Seen,” which Coltrane likely saw notated in his copy of James Weldon Johnson’s Books of American Negro Spirituals, as scholar Lewis Porter reported in his Coltrane biography.) Parts two and five are given over to Coltrane improvisations, first on tenor saxophone, with which he opened the song, and then on soprano sax, with which he ends. Dolphy’s solo is part three, and Tyner’s follows, part four.

Tyner’s piano solo is, for me, the heart of the piece, as well as the pivot point from Dolphy’s almost-jaunty solo, in C major, back to the tune’s native C minor.

Starting with seven measures of major chords before U-turning back to the minor key, it will cover nearly three and a half minutes, about as long as Coltrane’s opening solo. Outwardly, it typifies Tyner’s improvisations throughout his five years playing with Coltrane: single-note passages in the right hand framed by left-hand “stacks of harmony,” as one commentator described his distinctive, intentionally ambiguous chord voicings. These eventually culminate in climactic ten-fingers-together passages, with the chords’ top notes forming compelling melodic sequences of their own.

Whereas Coltrane’s earlier tenor solo revolved around the “tonic” C and, secondarily, G, the other prime note in the C minor scale, Tyner constructs much of his single-note improvisation around F, which in the key of C is the “response” note in the traditional blues call-and-response. Not only does this help differentiate Tyner’s melodies from Coltrane’s; it also imbues them with a bluesy sense, yet free of any blues cliché that might detract from the overall spiritual feeling.

The second half of Tyner’s solo is mostly given over to his majestic two-hand chord melodies — bright blocks of sounds that build, breathe, ascend, gather and build again. This stringing together of chords with stacked harmonies would become a signature of Tyner’s style with Coltrane, with no two sequences quite the same. Each was stamped with its own flavor.

Somehow, Tyner’s chord sequences on “Spiritual” seem infused with, well, spirituality. There’s a sense of devotion in them, as they strive toward some summit, striding forward with only the briefest pauses. At last, returning from the mountaintop and finished with melody, Tyner largely confines himself to two alternating C minor chords in the piano’s middle register. The chords, capped with the note G and differing in just one or two interior notes, create a comforting appetency. Tyner is consecrating the ground for Coltrane’s second, searing solo, this one on soprano saxophone.

That is McCoy Tyner, a month shy of his 23rd birthday. (Below is a transcription I made decades ago of the first half of Tyner’s solo, right-hand only. For a rich portrait of Tyner’s six-decade career, see David Yearsley’s Mountains of Sound, published here last week.) Alongside him, Reggie Workman, one year older, is anchoring the ensemble on his string bass and propelling it with buoyant authority.

For much of Coltrane’s and Tyner’s solos, Workman’s task will be to carry “Spiritual” on a simple, resonant C-minor phrase: C – G – F – Eb, then back to C. He will frequently repeat the phrase for six measures and devote the seventh and eighth to a turnaround cadence in G that resolves satisfyingly to C minor to begin the pattern again.

But that is the barest description, akin to calling a towering redwood a mere tree. Workman’s variations on this frame are richly melodic and filled with bends, thrusts and throbs that seem uncannily attuned to where the soloist has just been and is now headed. Or do Tyner and Coltrane go where Workman has pointed? It is impossible to tell, this is jazz at the fullest level of communion.

Listen to Workman’s stabbing, extending bass notes at the transition from Tyner solo to Coltrane’s, at 10:10. Or his bass strumming, playing two notes at once, around 10:50, something almost unheard of for backing a jazz solo, but here an insistent beating heart that will not be quieted.

I’ve said only a little about Dolphy and haven’t mentioned Coltrane’s drummer, Elvin Jones. Dolphy’s solo, with its playful, bubbly bass clarinet, its intentional choice of a major key, and its easy, loping phrases, is a cheering contrast to Coltrane’s and Tyner’s austere, minor-key grandeur. Dolphy’s presence is also felt in the opening and closing sections, where his lower-register honking appends an almost physical flesh to Tyner’s and Workman’s roiling piano and bass beneath Coltrane’s incantations.

Jones, for the most part, is neither polyrhythmic, as he will soon be on Coltrane recordings like “Out of This World” and “Your Lady,” nor explosive, befitting the composition’s worshipful quality. He comes especially to the fore toward the end of Tyner’s solo, lending drive to the gently swaying chords; in Coltrane’s soprano solo, during Workman’s bass strumming; and in the closing expression of the theme as he surrounds Coltrane’s horn in shimmering sheets of cymbals.

As for Coltrane himself, there is little to add to what has been said about his stature and accomplishments as instrumentalist, composer, innovator and exemplar. In The Atlantic in 1987, twenty years after Coltrane’s death, one writer spoke of Coltrane’s “world-weary melancholy and transcendental yearning” — a description that is eerily apposite to “Spiritual.”

Heard today, Trane’s initial, tenor solo seems to transcend melancholia. It feels suffused with grief — not just from three-and-a-half centuries of subjugation, but as a premonition. Africa was in liberation, the Freedom Rides were in full swing, Martin and Malcolm were at the height of their powers . . . yet in the tenderness of Coltrane’s improvisation there is almost a foretelling of the suffering to come. Through his horn, Coltrane seems to be singing, “Hear me, listen to me, abide with me.”

His soprano solo toward the end is replete with not just yearning but struggle, as if surging against the shackles of times past, present and future. When Coltrane relents, it is to repair to the “Nobody Knows” spiritual from which he built the tune. There is a final flourish, with the entire band — Dolphy, Tyner, Workman and Jones — whirling and thrashing around him, until they too subside, leaving Workman to close, alone, plucking his bass strings, three times, C – G – C, it is finished.

The applause that follows — remember, this is a “live” recording, before one or two hundred people in a cellar on Seventh Avenue in Greenwich Village — sounds heartfelt, if perhaps stunned. Since Impulse Records released “Spiritual” in 1962 on the Coltrane Live at the Village Vanguard LP, I have listened to it a thousand times. Each time I too am overcome.

This music has guided and carried me almost all of my life, filled me with awe and gratitude for the men who made it. As a pianist who can sense if not fully grasp what McCoy Tyner did, I want to say that a world that can give us Mr. Tyner is a dear thing. Rest in everlasting peace.

Charles Komanoff, a bicycling advocate and traffic modeler, is a longtime New York City resident.