Passion Dance
McCoy Tyner, 1938-2020

I play piano.

I definitely would not describe myself as a piano player. I never took lessons – I taught myself, with some initial help and encouragement from my grandmother, a concert pianist. I know what I’m doing behind a keyboard, but I’m nothing special, and my technique is terrible. The one time my parents did take me in for piano lessons, after years of learning on my own, I was told that I’d have to forget everything and start from scratch. So I quit.

Basically, I know enough about playing piano to know that I’m not particularly good at playing piano. I know enough to recognize great playing when I hear it, to recognize that sweet spot between talent and hard work that produces some of the very best ivory-ticklers in the world. I have a running list of those people in my head, my piano-playing idols. These are the folks I listen to when I want to feel simultaneously awed and dismayed.

McCoy Tyner was definitely on that list.

Tyner should be on any short list of extraordinary jazz pianists, up there with Monk and Evans. I first heard him as a member of John Coltrane’s epic 1960s quartet, and I know there will be plenty of remembrances of Tyner that begin and end with this period of his career. It’s hard to fault people for that – the albums Tyner recorded with Coltrane, including My Favorite Things, Live at the Village Vanguard and the immortal A Love Supreme, are among the best ever made.

And Tyner’s playing on them is magical. A Love Supreme is one of my favorite albums, a perfect synthesis of pieces and players, and perhaps the most complete distillation of Coltrane’s genius on wax. There’s a lyrical complexity to Tyner’s playing that I can barely describe – it’s so knotted, and yet flows so effortlessly. If you can, seek out the one extant live recording, laid down in July of 1965. (It’s on the deluxe reissue of the album.) That’s where you get to hear just how on-fire this whole band is. You can really hear Tyner’s energy and force, especially on “Part II – Resolution.”

I completely understand if your familiarity with McCoy Tyner begins and ends with this quartet, or even with this record. It’s a masterpiece, and it belongs in every home. But Tyner had a long solo career before, during and after playing in Trane’s band, and I love much of that material equally. He was a softer-touch player before his stint with Trane, but when he released The Real McCoy in 1967, he emerged transformed. That album is amazing, from “Passion Dance” on down, and sparked a run of dozens of very good records.

I keep coming back, in fact, to the last one he made. Tyner recorded Solo: Live from San Francisco in 2007, and released it in 2009. He was 69 years old when he sat down at the piano at the Herbst Theatre, but was still clearly capable of spinning up a whole world just by himself. His signature heavy left hand was in full force, smashing down those bass notes and chords, and his superhuman dexterity had not lost a note. Most of all, this performance sounds like McCoy Tyner, and like no one else. It’s incredible.

On Friday, March 6, McCoy Tyner became the last of Coltrane’s great quartet to pass on. He was 81. I don’t suppose I will ever grow tired of listening to him play. He still fills me with that mix of awe and dismay, mixed with a little bit of disbelief. May it always be so. Rest in peace, McCoy.

* * * * *

I suppose I could end this with a look at some of the albums I’m excited about in the coming months. This has been the strangest year so far, and with the global pandemic breathing down our necks, it’s about to get even stranger. Tours are being canceled, and albums are probably next. But given what we know right now, here’s the best stuff that I think the next few months will bring us.

March doesn’t really take flight until its last week, but it’s a good one. New things from Pearl Jam, Sufjan Stevens (with his stepfather Lowell Brams), Brian Fallon, Waxahatchee, Vanessa Carlton and the debut of Coriky, which brings Ian McKaye and Joe Lally together for the first time since Fugazi. In April we’ll see a new Rufus Wainwright and new things from Lady Gaga, the Strokes, the Watkins Family Hour, Haim, Pure Reason Revolution and – and I swear I am not making this up – something called Danzig Sings Elvis.

May holds new ones from Alanis Morissette, the Psychedelic Furs, Built to Spill (playing the songs of Daniel Johnston), Jason Isbell, Sparks, the Magnetic Fields, Weezer and the Killers, along with the long-awaited return of Phantom Planet. Beyond that we will get new Steven Wilson, the fourth Husky album and a new record from the Choir, which they are taking pledges for right now. Oh, and a near-Jellyfish reunion with the new band The Lickerish Quartet.

It’s pretty random, right? So far there are no big-deal announcements, no huge records that will bring everyone out of their homes to listen. Which, given the pandemic, might be a good thing.

Anyway, that’s it for this week. Next week, some more random March records.

See you in line Tuesday morning.