The real McCoy

Jazz pianist McCoy Tyner, who’s performed with many of the biggest names, brings his trio here jazz.

Jazz pianist McCoy Tyner 390 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Jazz pianist McCoy Tyner 390
(photo credit: REUTERS)
 When it comes to iconic jazz figures, 73-year-old pianist McCoy Tyner is up there with the best of them. He initially staked his claim for fame as a member of legendary saxophonist John Coltrane’s acclaimed group in the first half of the 1960s, but after five years with the reedman he struck out on his own and quickly made a mark for himself as an innovative leader. Next Saturday, Tyner will make his first visit to this country in more than a decade when he appears at Heichal Hatarbut in Petah Tikva on March 10 (9 p.m.).
Over the years, Tyner has performed with a wide range of jazz musicians of all ages, such as 71- year-old vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson and 35-year-old drummer Eric Harland.
Pianist Kenny Werner, 60, once observed that working with older musicians, such as 89-year-old Belgian harmonica player Toots Thielemans, gives him plenty of accrued experience to feed off, while playing with younger artists like 40-year-old bassist Johannes Weidenmuller keeps him on his toes.
Tyner agrees with that sentiment.
“I get inspired by musicians of all generations as long as they have their own unique voice,” notes the pianist, adding that as a now senior member of the jazz fraternity, he has a duty to offer the younger cats a helping hand.
“I tend to play with younger musicians sometimes because, yes, it does keep me on my toes, but more importantly, it exposes my audiences to the next generation of jazz musicians. We have so many young players coming up who do have their own voice and their own sound, but we have to give them a platform to build an audience around what they're trying to do. The best way to do that is for us older musicians to give them a chance to be heard.”
Tyner says he was in the right place at the right time when he was taking his first steps in music.
“When I was growing up, Philadelphia was a hotbed for jazz – The Heath brothers, Thad and Elvin Jones, Coltrane. You had so many great musicians coming from the same city, it was hard not to be inspired by what they were doing.”
He also benefited from some parental support and from an unusual venue to display his burgeoning talent.“My mother really encouraged me to play music. By the time we got a piano, she set it up in her beauty shop, so my friends and I would be having a jam session next to a bunch of ladies getting their hair done! It was a great time to grow up.”
He also fed off some of the founding fathers of modern jazz and took in some extra-curricular influences, too.
“Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk were probably my biggest influences growing up, from a jazz standpoint. I used to take piano lessons as a small kid, and my teacher had me playing Chopin and Bach, so I had a strong foundation before falling in love with jazz,” he explains.
Tyner joined forces with Coltrane in 1960, when the saxophonist was making his mark as an avantgardist, and spent highly formative five years with him – and not just in a musical sense.
“I learned so much from John, not only about music but about life. He had so much confidence in me as a musician and looked after me like a big brother.”
The pianist is the last surviving member of Coltrane’s 1960s groups – particularly the quartet alongside bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones – playing on a number of classic Coltrane albums, including Live at the Village Vanguard, A Love Supreme and Crescent.
Tyner says the saxophonist had a lasting impact on all the sidemen who worked with him.
“John set the bar very high. He worked so hard at his craft; he was always practicing. But he was also a great composer and bandleader. He wanted us all to bring our own voice and our own sound but come together as one unit. It was just a wonderful experience for me.”
In 1965, Tyner decided it was time to leave the – albeit artistically and highly rewarding – comfort of his berth in the Coltrane Quartet and try his hand as a leader.
“John always encouraged me to go out on my own and record. When Bob Theile from Impulse Records approached me about recording under my own name, he was very supportive. After some time, I expressed a desire to lead my own band, and John understood and supported me then, too. There were certainly times when leading a band was difficult, but I’ve been doing it a long time, and I enjoy it very much,” he says.
Almost half a century on, Tyner says his approach to the music is just as fresh.
“One thing I find is that I might play the same song two nights in a row, but I never play the same thing twice. I could play my tune ‘Blues on the Corner,’ and it will be completely different tonight than it will be tomorrow night. That’s the beauty of improvisation, and I enjoy that challenge.”
Coltrane continues to be an everpresent feature of Tyner’s ethos.
“In the last year, I have been working on a project that revisits the music of the recording John Coltrane and [vocalist] Johnny Hartman that I was fortunate enough to be on almost 50 years ago. Wow, has it really been that long? Anyway, we’ve toured around in Europe and Asia and really just had a great time.”
Some of that may find its way into the Petah Tikva gig.
“In Israel I will be playing with my trio, featuring bassist Gerald Cannon and drummer Francisco Mela,” says Tyner. “We've been working a lot together over the past few years, and we are all excited to play in Israel.”
The McCoy Tyner Trio will perform at Heichal Hatarbut in Petah Tikva on March 10 at 9 p.m. For tickets and more information: (03) 762-6666 and *9080 or