Pianist Steve Melling remembers the very great McCoy Tyner, his music, and an invaluable and unforgettable piece of advice…
I was lucky enough to meet and speak to the great McCoy Tyner – who left us last Friday, 6 March 2020 – three times.
The first was in the mid-1980s at a festival in the UK; the last was when I played with Peter King’s quartet opposite him at Ronnie Scotts. But it was the second time, in 2008, which stays in my mind as I think about his sheer genius as a jazz pianist and the scale of his achievement.
It was in Germany at the Viersen Jazz Festival where I was playing with Alan Skidmore’s Ubizo, a band of European and African musicians. I’d just been listening to McCoy’s quartet from the wings. I was just a few feet away, looking over his left shoulder, soaking in the music. It wasn’t so much loud as intense, and its energy was irresistible. Here was that left hand which nonchalantly bounced some bass notes from some height. Occasionally, going into the beginning of a chorus, there was a glissando crescendo up the keyboard but using both hands, all the keys (black and white together) and with the pedal down. Breathtaking.
McCoy Tyner is without doubt one of the most influential figures in jazz history. His music covered post-bop and modal jazz and he had his own explorations into an Afro-Cuban style. He made albums as a leader, such as the well-known The Real McCoy, recorded in 1967 – with “Passion Dance” and the beautiful “Search For Peace” as the stand-out tracks. On his album Inception, from 1962, it’s the title track for me. On his Nights Of Ballads And Blues album, from 1963, he almost entirely plays standards, but with his take on them; you just put it on and chill – it’s all good.
During the 1960s, he also recorded with Wayne Shorter – for example, on Juju in 1964. But most famously, he played with John Coltrane’s Classic Quartet along with Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones. He was a truly unique voice, as can be heard on such great albums as Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, which became widely recognized as a deeply spiritual suite. In particular, listen to his accompaniment and solo on “Resolution” from this studio album. Other Coltrane Quartet tracks where I think McCoy particularly shines include the title track on Crescent, “Softly As In A Morning Sunrise” from Live At The Village Vanguard, and “Say It” from Ballads.
Due to artistic differences, Tyner left Coltrane in 1965. I imagine the mid-1960s must have been a difficult period for Tyner, but later in ‘67 he bounced back with The Real McCoy mentioned previously, and a lovely album, Tender Moments, from 1968. This is quite an adventurous set of originals for nine-piece, and the first two tracks – “Mode To John” and “Man From Tanganyika” – I particularly like, as well as the mournful “All My Yesterdays”. He recorded with another larger ensemble in 1976 on Fly With The Wind – Hubert Laws (flute), Ron Carter (bass), and Billy Cobham (drums), along with woodwinds, strings and harp. There are solo albums such as Revelations, with his own tunes “You Taught My Heart To Sing” and “Contemplation”; and also big band albums The Turning Point and Uptown/Downtown. Then there are Afro-Cuban styles on La Leyenda De La Hora (The Legend Of The Hour) and McCoy Tyner And The Latin All-Stars. There’s even an album of Bacharach tunes with a symphony orchestra; and while it doesn’t really work, he gives it everything and his rich playing somehow makes it OK!
I stood there in the wings for the whole set at the Viersen Jazz Festival, and when it came to an end, the musicians (McCoy Tyner, Gary Bartz on alto and soprano saxophones, Gerald L. Cannon on bass, and Eric Kamau Gravatt on drums) left the stage on the opposite side to where I was. Downstairs, behind the stage, was the musicians’ cafeteria and I headed down there. After a short while, Ali Haurand, one of the festival organisers, appeared and asked me if I’d like him to introduce me to my hero, McCoy. You bet I would! I was taken to his dressing room, briefly introduced, and then we were just left alone in the room. Now what? I needed to justify my being there, delaying him from getting back to his hotel. I nervously told the great man that I was a pianist, that I would be playing there later, and also that I had played with Elvin Jones’ Jazz Machine ten years previously. He seemed a little doubtful about that, maybe because of my English accent, until I used Elvin’s nickname: ‘You call him V, and he called you M.T.’.
He said, ‘You knew him?’
‘Well, not really, but I played those two gigs with him.’
… and he’s putting his jacket on, getting ready to go, perhaps still not fully convinced that I’m not going to produce a microphone and start pressing him for an interview.
A couple of years previously, someone had shown me an album cover, and the pianist was listed as Alfred McCoy Tyner. That was McCoy’s full name, and it caused me to write a piece.
So I say, ‘I once wrote a thing for my band that was inspired by your music and I called it “Alfred The Great”’. He laughs.
Then I tell him something that, as I’m writing this, I’m very glad I took the opportunity to say:
‘I really want to thank you for all your great playing and your compositions.’
He shrugs, modestly, as if to say ‘I was just a part of the group, ‘couldn’t have done it without the other guys, etc.’…
… then I say, ‘I’m a pianist and I’ve admired your music since I was a teenager. Do you have any advice for someone like me?’ An impossible question to answer. What was I thinking? He didn’t know anything about me, and had never heard me play. And a cheek, he’s played with everyone. But he didn’t hesitate, quickly replying with a little smile:
‘Be happy. What else is there?’
With that, he put on his cap, picked up a piece of fruit from a table in the dressing room and said, with a gesture towards the door, ‘They have a car for me’. I nodded, thanked him and wished him well for the rest of his tour – and off he went.
Well, I don’t think I can always be happy, but I can try; although I do know that listening to your playing, McCoy, gives me a great feeling. It’s a pleasure every time. I feel sad now that you’ve gone, but grateful for the vast amount of music you’ve left for us all to enjoy.
Alfred McCoy Tyner. Born Philadelphia 11 December 1938. Died Bergenfield New Jersey, 6 March 2020.