McCoy Tyner was born in Philadelphia on December 11, 1938, one of three children. His mother, a beautician who played a little piano, encouraged his interest in music. Tyner studied at the West Philadelphia and Granoff Music Schools, and at 15 formed his first group—a seven-piece R&B unit. Neighbors and/or friends at that time included Bud and Richie Powell, Bobby Timmons, Lee Morgan, Archie Shepp, and Reggie Workman.
At 17, while working with trumpeter Calvin Massey at the Red Rooster, he met John Coltrane, then in between stints with Miles Davis. They worked a couple of jobs together, and it was understood that Tyner would be a part of the band that Coltrane hoped to form.
In 1959, McCoy took a day job as a shipping clerk, playing music at night, and grabbed the opportunity to join a new group called the Jazztet, led by Art Farmer and Benny Golson. It was with this group that the 20-year-old Tyner made his recording debut. But after six months with the Jazztet McCoy heard that Coltrane was putting together his own band, and since “John was the only person I wanted to play with in those days,” he quickly left the Jazztet to join what was to become one of the seminal jazz groups.
Tyner went on to record some 20 albums with the Coltrane group, which included Elvin Jones on drums, usually Jimmy Garrison on bass, and later Eric Dolphy. During this period, he also recorded a number of albums for the Impulse! label under his own name (the first was Inception, when he was 23).
McCoy remained with Coltrane until 1965. By that time there were two drummers working in the band, Rashied Ali and Elvin Jones, and Tyner has said that he actually had difficulty hearing what he was playing; in any event, he wanted to form his own group.
The next five years or so were lean ones. Jazz in general was undergoing economic privations while rock flourished. At one point he was even considering driving a cab in order to support his family, but his wife encouraged him to stay with his music. Tyner recorded for Blue Note during this period. Although his efforts did not meet with much commercial success, he created several memorable albums with musicians like Ron Carter; Lee Morgan, and Joe Henderson.
McCoy Tyner’s signing with Milestone Records in 1971 and his association with producer Orrin Keepnews coincided with a fortuitous upsurge in recognition of jazz, as well as Tyner’s creative output. His first album for the label, Sahara (1972), was nominated for two Grammies and named Album of the Year by the Down Beat Critic’s Poll.
At the same time, Tyner was enjoying increasing success as a bandleader—he has put together a series of groups that have been acclaimed by critics and audiences throughout the world. Tyner band alumni include Woody Shaw, Bennie Maupin, Alphonse Mouzon, Joony Booth, Azar Lawrence, Eric Gravatt, Gary Bartz, and Sonny Fortune. He is currently leading a sextet that features saxophonist Joe Ford and violinist John Blake (formerly with Grover Washington).
In fall ’78, Tyner spent a couple of months working as part of a whole other band: the Milestone Jazzstars, with Ron Carter, Sonny Rollins, and Al Foster. The Jazzstars played to capacity crowds during their triumphant 20-city American tour, and their performances were captured in a stunning double-LP package entitled Milestone Jazzstars In Concert.
In recent years, McCoy Tyner has emerged as an astonishingly complete musician and one of the most influential figures on the scene. As an interpreter and stylist, he possesses one of the most galvanizing and instantly identifiable techniques in jazz piano—percussive, powerful, and yet very sensitive. (He was just voted top acoustic pianist in the 1980 Down Beat Readers’ Poll.)
As a composer, Tyner has increasingly become recognized as an important force in the music. His work has been recorded by numerous artists, and he has written compositions featuring such unusual instruments as the harpsichord, the dulcimer, and the Brazilian berimbau.
Tyner has just as readily taken to arranging and orchestrating. He arranged for strings on the groundbreaking Fly with the Wind (recorded in 1976 with Ron Carter, Billy Cobham, and Hubert Laws). Inner Voices, released late in 1977, featured a vocal chorus plus arrangements for brass and reeds in various combinations.
The Greeting, a 1978 live recording, and Horizon, a studio album released last year, were both essentially working-band LPs, featuring bassist Charles Fambrough, reedmen Joe Ford and George Adams, and percussionist Guilherme Franco.
On the double album Four Times Four, his latest endeavor, Tyner engages in a series of quartets with a diverse group of top musicians.
McCoy and the superb rhythm section of Al Foster and Cecil McBee are joined by a different soloist on each side: the fiery Freddie Hubbard on trumpet; John Abercrombie, heard on electric mandolin; vibist Bobby Hutcherson; and alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe.
A few of the LP’s many highlights are “Pannonica,” an infrequently-recorded Monk composition performed here with Hutcherson; the lovely “Manhã de Carnaval,” included on the Hubbard session; and “Blues in the Minor,” a new Tyner original featuring Blythe.
This outstanding Tyner collection clearly demonstrated the continuing musical growth of a major figure in contemporary music.