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McCoy Tyner, one of the truly monumental jazz pianists of all time, died on March 6. He was 81.
From the outset, Tyner attracted acclaim. As early as 1962, no less an authority than John Coltrane was praising his “melodic inventiveness,” his “exceptionally well-developed sense of form,” his “very personal sound,” and his “taste.” “He can take anything,” Coltrane said, “no matter how weird, and make it sound beautiful.”
The recordings Tyner made from 1967 to 1974 dramatically expanded the possibilities of what piano-driven jazz could do and where it could go. Three of those albums in particular—Echoes of a Friend (1972), Song of the New World (1973), and Enlightenment (1973)—remain unsurpassed in terms of their technical, artistic, and emotional range.
The “friend” in Echoes of a Friend was Coltrane, the “echoes” Tyner’s solo-piano reimaginings of songs that he had played countless times as a member of Coltrane’s best-known quartet (“Naima,” “The Promise,” “My Favorite Things”). “Folks” and the 17½-minute tour de force “The Discovery,” meanwhile, showcased what a composer Tyner had become in his own right. Enlightenment, which contained nothing but Tyner compositions, captured the excitement that a Tyner-led quartet could whip up onstage.
It was Song of the New World, however, and its title track especially, that made his imaginative capacities hardest to ignore. Four of the five selections were Tyner originals, and all of them boasted large-scale arrangements (for brass or string sections by turn). The results were stunning, an exhilarating whirlwind of sounds, melodies, and rhythms anchored by Tyner’s percussive left hand and shot through with iridescent glissandi rippling forth from his right.
During these years, Tyner also became a fixture of the jazz-festival circuit. In addition to Enlightenment (which documents a Montreux set), recordings of his Newport performances circa 1975-2004 reveal that he seldom if ever had an off night.
With the arrival of the 1980s, his studio output increasingly reflected his desire to experiment with different styles (including the commercial R&B of Looking Out) and different collaborators (including the saxophonists Frank Morgan and Jackie McLean). When Tyner told Marian McPartland, as a guest on her NPR show Piano Jazz in 1983, that he “just liked to move around a little bit,” he was referring to (and understating) his exploratory approach to modes and chords. But he could’ve been referring to his modus operandi overall.
In the late ’80s, with the albums Revelations and Things Ain’t What They Used to Be, he returned to the solo-piano format, proving with his interpretations of Gershwin, Ellington, and Berlin that it wasn’t just the weird that he could make sound beautiful. The piano, he told McPartland, “has so much to offer.”
If pianos could talk, they’d no doubt have said the same about him.