There was a time when jazz pianists sounded so unique they could be identified in just a handful of notes. Bill Evans' light touch was pensive and intellectualized. Bud Powell tore off roller-coaster twists of classical-influenced bebop. And Thelonious Monk hammered out lazy lines of chordal weirdness. Pianist McCoy Tyner, with his bombastic keyboard pouncing, may be the last of the real piano personalities.
It takes only seconds of hearing his 20-finger chord thrashing on Atlantis or Fly With the Wind to identify the percussive pianist, now in his fourth decade of recording. No other keyboardist in the history of mainstream jazz has played with as much power. Tyner is no less expressive when it comes to commenting on the slew of new jazz faces who sound interchangeable.
"When I was coming up in jazz, you were encouraged to delve into your own personality," recalls Tyner in a telephone call from his Manhattan home. "Musicians emerged with an identity."
The 54-year-old pianist still finds a lot of his identity surfacing, enough to merit four different record labels producing four entirely different Tyner projects within the last 18 months. In spite of his workload, he says he's disturbed that the new crop of jazz players can get away with reverently mimicking Monk and Powell rather than developing their own feel.
"There's a lineage that is being interrupted by the public relations departments of record companies," he says. "The new guys are being made big stars without having had the years of playing experience needed to find their voice."
McCoy Tyner speaks with an air of authority that he has earned. If ever there was a pianist in jazz tempted to fall under the influence of a mentor, it's Tyner.
As a boy in Philadelphia, the incomparable Bud Powell was a neighbor. Having no piano of his own at the time, Powell would come around to the Tyner residence to play theirs. Tyner, already familiar enough with jazz to be gaga over the presence of Powell, followed him everywhere. The discipleship faded with time as Tyner chose to let Powell's amazingly personal technique become merely an important influence.
An even greater opportunity to succumb to an influence came in the early Sixties when Tyner left his first big-name gig--playing behind saxophonist Benny Golson and trumpeter Art Farmer--to join the quartet of soon-to-be jazz monster John Coltrane. It was during the six years Tyner played with him that Coltrane became one of jazz's most significant innovators.
"Coltrane was very fortunate in that he got a group that was very compatible with his playing," Tyner says, only too willing to take credit for helping to boost Coltrane into the ranks of jazz legend.
Tyner's piano became an integral part of Coltrane's developing personality. At the group's height in the mid-Sixties, Coltrane and his sidemen released as many as four albums a year in a furious quest to stretch jazz-sax playing. The jazz audience was all ears, as Coltrane's quartet came to represent the cutting edge in improvisation. After his years with Coltrane, Tyner's place in jazz history was assured.
"At one point, my direction and John's direction were the same," Tyner remembers. "But we ended up like the branches of a tree, both coming out of the same trunk but eventually veering off in different directions."
What led to Tyner's reassessment of his career were Coltrane's growing penchant for hourlong sax squawking, ever-farther-out musical adventures and guest avant-gardists like fellow sax stranglers Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders.
"There was the physical problem of not being able to hear myself play, with drummers playing on both sides of me," Tyner says. "But even then we were compatible. I went far with him, but I realized I needed to follow my own voice, deal with my own music."
Then, as now, Tyner was supportive of developing individuality--even when it meant that he would no longer fit with the jazz titan's band. "The music was a completely logical move for him. In all the atonality of his playing, he was searching for something within himself."
But it was his own searching, not Coltrane's, that would eventually make Tyner a jazz personality in his own right. "When I left, I wasn't looking for stardom. I just wanted to explore my own direction. It had gotten to where playing with Coltrane was like being out in the middle of the ocean without any sight of land," he says of Coltrane's marathon assaults. "Me, I don't mind going out there, but I like to come back to the beach."
Tyner may not have pursued the head-splitting direction of Coltrane, but he did use the experience of playing with a wall of saxophones and drummers to cultivate a heavy, drummerlike keyboard touch. Tyner's style was completely at odds with his soft-and-smooth piano peers like John Lewis or Hank Jones. Albums like Sahara and Asante still surprise Tyner initiates who think of jazz piano as necessarily delicate.
"I'm not afraid to lock into that powerful approach. I play very rhythmically and very percussively," he says. "I think the piano lends itself to percussive playing as well as it lends itself to a delicate approach."
Don't expect to hear Tyner tutoring many of the new generation of artists, some of whom were heavily influenced by the Coltrane albums Tyner played on. He can't afford them.
"A lot of the young horn players I can't hire because the media have made them big stars," Tyner says. "They make as much money as I do. And a lot of these well-paid young jazz players are still just imitating the masters because they haven't had the chance to do their apprenticeship. Some of them are very talented, have been to music school and gotten a degree, but the practical experience of developing in a band for four or five years is not happening. You can explore the masters, but they can't hold your hand."
Tyner and Coltrane spent six years slowly building a following in the club scene, back before recording labels pushed jazz artists to stardom simply by pouring money into promotion. Not only is the industry different, but so is the attitude of the new jazz artist.
"Used to be you had to know what you were doing before you could get on a big record label. When I was coming up, I wouldn't even get on the bandstand with some jazz players unless I felt I was really capable of holding my own," Tyner says. "The bands would discipline you, too. If you came on as being arrogant, man, you would think you were stupid before they got through with you. They wouldn't tolerate it, and that's the way it should be. The standards were high. It's not like that anymore."
Others of Tyner's generation have obviously felt the same. Several years back, when trumpeter Wynton Marsalis invited himself onstage to play during a Miles Davis set, Davis brought his band to a halt until Marsalis crawled off.
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"Wynton is a talented musician," says Tyner with a whiff of disdain, "but a lot of people are putting him up like he's greater than, say, Freddie Hubbard."
Tyner's obvious resentment of the young lions, however, is tempered by the ongoing success of his own career. Having conquered the nether regions of bombastic piano, the keyboardist continues to explore new avenues of making music and making money. Since 1988, he has released solo, duet, quartet, quintet and big-band recordings. In some cases, he's hurt his own sales by having too many albums out at once.
The biggest surprise in that forest of projects is his growth as a solo pianist, a setting where the mettle of his musical personality comes under greatest scrutiny. Old Tyner fans listening to 1989's Revelations or this year's Soliloquy may not recognize him. The power previously emoted in piano pounding has in those albums been moderated and spread across a bustle of thousand-note runs. The distribution of energy may vary, but the power level and masculinity remain all Tyner.
"I felt like that was a side of me that was important to explore further," says the pianist of his less-stormy recent solo recordings. "Just got to keep moving, you know?"
Tyner is already planning changes. You can bet that none of them will be nostalgic attempts to re-create Sixties jazz by milking his Coltrane connection. Let the younger players copy out of the jazz history books--Tyner continues to stretch out.
"I've got a project coming up that's really going to be different," says Tyner with a laugh, unwilling to give clues to the destination. "It's something I've been wanting to do for a long time."
"Maybe," he adds, thinking of the uncharted waters, "maybe, I'll go to Mars.