It’s 1960. You’re into jazz and you feel lost. The feel-good, cool vibe of Be-Bop is dead. The kinetic frenzy of Free Jazz is several years away. The timbre of the time sounds, in a word, hollow. Suddenly, you hear something—a piano that rages, one that sounds like it’s being played with a hundred velvet-covered hammers. There’s a flavor in the bass line that is impossibly rich, melodies that take you at breakneck speed to places you never thought they’d go, and a tempo more elastic than anything the Space Age has ever seen. You look to see where all this is coming from. That’s him. Over John Coltrane’s shoulder, at the piano. McCoy Tyner. He’s 20 years old.
It was precisely 40 years ago that McCoy Tyner broke upon the scene, standing up at a tender age to become one of the pillars of the famed John Coltrane Quartet. Though he was still a kid, Tyner had already done a few rounds by that point—fronting an R&B band, pressing a few records, and, before that, entertaining customers in his mother’s beauty parlor where he practiced—but it was onstage with Coltrane where he first got his chops. That’s where listeners, critics and jazzmen twice his age came to see that this boy was reinventing the meaning of jazz piano. With each stroke of the keys, Tyner took down the architecture of Be-Bop and reconfigured it into something not heard before: torrential, percussive, almost expressionistic. Like what Jackson Pollock would do, if you could splatter notes. Or what one of the great German composers might have played, if he grew up in Philadelphia listening to Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Art Tatum. Between the rigidity of tradition and the aimless noodling of improvisation, there was, it turns out, just enough room for one young man’s inspiration.
But of course, Tyner hasn’t stopped there, or anywhere. Since leaving the Coltrane band in 1965, McCoy Tyner has gone solo, done Latin, fronted Big Band, and worked in arrangements from trio to quintet. Tyner’s latest release, McCoy Tyner with Stanley Clark and Al Foster, recorded a year ago this week, gives shape to the breadth of Tyner’s ability. There’s tender balladeering in his “Never Let Me Go,” liberal revisionism in his cover of the standard “Will You Still Be Mine,” and the full-throttle rush of that now-familiar sound—the sound that he reinvented during his Coltrane days—in the aptly named “Trane-like.” And through it all, there remains a certain quality that you still know to be real, that you still know is Tyner’s: endless cascades of chord, melody and rhythm, all thrummed out with thousand-fingered lines that seem almost impossible to hear, let alone play. It’s the real thing. Be grateful that you will know it when you hear it.
The McCoy Tyner Trio plays the Wilma this Wednesday, April 26 at 8 p.m. Tickets $20 in advance. Call 1-888-MONTANA.