It occurs to me that I’ve said little, on the record, about McCoy Tyner.
This is a shame, since he is one of my all-time favorite musicians and a case could be made that he has, pound for pound, been the most prolific, consistently brilliant and straight-out important jazz musician of the last half-century.
That he made music (and history) as part of the “Classic Quartet” with John Coltrane is enough to ensure his immortality in jazz circles. That he simultaneously was making remarkable albums under his own name only adds to his legend. That he was also appearing with compatriots (like Wayne Shorter) and appearing on masterpiece after masterpiece for the Blue Note label would seal the deal. But that all occurred in the ’60s. Not enough people know that Tyner continued to make astonishing music into the ’70s and has not slowed down since. Indeed, his streak of albums from the late ’60s (starting with Expansions through the mid-to-late ’70s with Trident) represents a body of work that, by itself, can stand alongside anything anyone has ever done (in any genre, by the way).
Hyperbole? Hardly. Tyner epitomizes the restless spirit and inspiration that characterizes all of our great artists: he was already a master (for whatever that’s worth –and for the purposes of any discussion about jazz, it’s worth a great deal) by the mid-’60s; his work with Coltrane could be studied and analyzed the way entire catalogs of music get dissected by critics. He was neither sated nor satisfied, so he kept pushing and his work became increasingly ambitious, wide in scope and rewarding. His playing on albums like Expansions, Extensions, Enlightenment or Sahara is extraordinary, combining the proficiency and power with the uniquely affirmative expression he ceaselessly conjures up and conveys. It does, at times, sound like two people are playing two different pianos: there is so much going on, such emotion and feeling, but with little if any of the harshness or imperial perfection of late Coltrane. Similar in this regard to Mingus, there is a constant intensity and enormity in the playing, but instead of overwhelming it buoys you and carries you along.
In the ’70s, he began incorporating a far-reaching (literally) sensibility into his compositions, and there are traces of Africa and the far East interwoven into the mix. This is World music with a capital-W and much of the material on the aforementioned Asante and Sahara (both revealing titles on multiple levels) sound less like jazz and more like an uncategorizable other type of music: deeply spiritual and incredibly powerful, yet engaging and even, at times, ebullient.
Here is a brief tour of the progressions Tyner was making from the late ’60s through the mid-’70s. Enjoy the ride and go seek more.
Message from the Nile (1970):
Valley of Life (1972)
Once I Loved (1976):