New York Jazz Workshop Remembers McCoy Tyner (1938-2020)

The New York Jazz Workshop’s CJ Shearn offers a reflection on the passing of jazz piano legend McCoy Tyner.  Below are Shearn’s words.   The legends who have made significant contributions to this music within the linear historical narrative are leaving the earthly realm one by one.  March 6th saw the passing of an absolute giant: McCoy Tyner.  The groundbreaking piano titan passed away at home peacefully, leaving  a legacy as vast as it was […]

The New York Jazz Workshop’s CJ Shearn offers a reflection on the passing of jazz piano legend McCoy Tyner.  Below are Shearn’s words.


The legends who have made significant contributions to this music within the linear historical narrative are leaving the earthly realm one by one.  March 6th saw the passing of an absolute giant: McCoy Tyner.  The groundbreaking piano titan passed away at home peacefully, leaving  a legacy as vast as it was influential.  My initial entry to Tyner’s work was at five or six years of age when my aunt got me the album Milestone Jazzstars In Concert (1978) my first exposure as well, to Sonny Rollins.  I always loved this particular double album  because I felt the group dynamic was very strong and it introduced me to Tyner’s inimitable walloping, but also subtle playing.


Tyner was born in Philadelphia on December 11, 1938.  The house where he grew up was downstairs from his mother’s beauty salon and it was there from the age of 13 that the pianist developed his craft.  In a heartwarming way, in a 1999 interview with Owen McNally that appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Mr. Tyner described a typical scenario at his mother’s salon:

“My mother’s customers would be patting their feet right next to my band’s baritone saxophone player, never missing a beat,” Tyner recalls, speaking by phone from his Manhattan apartment.

“My mother would walk into her shop–we lived over the parlor on the second floor–and say, ‘Wow, McCoy! You got a big band there! Go ahead and play!’ ” From early on, the environment he grew up in was conducive to honing his chops; studying both classical and jazz.  Richie Powell, Bud Powell’s younger brother who was tragically killed in the same car wreck as Clifford Brown, lived around the corner, and Bud would frequently play at the family’s home.

In 1959, he joined Benny Golson’s Jazztet, and at a matinee bill he shared with Cal Massey, the legendary Philadelphia trumpeter and composer a chance meeting would be something that would define his career.:a chance meeting with John Coltrane.  For five years from 1961-1965 in the classic John Coltrane Quartet, Tyner aided in the redefinition of  what a jazz quartet was and could be.  The quartet, first with Art Davis on bass, Reggie Workman and crystallizing with Jimmy Garrison, was a unit of indescribable energy, but also capable of wonderful subtlety as Plays The Blues, Ballads and the recent finds Both Directions At Once and Blue World demonstrated.  It was Coltrane’s stripping down of “My Favorite Things” to find Eastern sonorities, that really showcased Tyner’s innovations.  Though the use of perfect fourths and fifths had been in use prior to Tyner, the application in his playing was game changing.  In his fingers, the fourth voicing achieved a pillowy character that was somehow massive, and the sudden slamming of fifths, also in the left hand just freed up the harmony in a unique way.  His skittering diminished lines in the right hand suggested something other than a piano– something more like a guitar, harp or zither.  Tyner’s application of this style of playing added so much to albums such as Juju by Wayne ShorterTom Cat by Lee Morgan, and Matador by Grant Green just to name a few.  It would be foolish here to list a traditional career narrative here, but compositions such as “Passion Dance” from the landmark The Real McCoy (1967)  are so fascinating for the mileage he gets from the F Mixolydian scale and the use of an Fsus4 chord underneath, nothing ever gets tired in his solo from the use of that one scale.  The solo version on the Milestone album of the same name, recorded live in Japan makes intriguing comparative listening to how he approaches the melody, and alters the harmony.


As with a lot of his Milestone recordings, the pianist sought to increase the sound palette, as with his final Blue Note albums of 1968-1970.  These albums, Cosmos, Expansions, Extensions, and Asante (unreleased until 1973) found Tyner using diverse instrumentation such as Wayne Shorter on tenor, (and his first instrument, clarinet), Gary Bartz’ alto, Herbie Lewis’ bass augmented by Ron Carter’s cello, Hubert Laws’ flute, and a string quartet among others.  Tyner expanded the harmonic palette by employing these various colors, and taking cues from Indian and African music with some of the tunes.  One of the most memorable aspects of the track “Vision” is the balance between the tonal and atonal, particularly on the bridge.  Herbie Lewis holds down a vamp, while Carter goes on some surreal micro tonal flights.  While this contrast may seem jarring to listeners only familiar with  his work with Coltrane, the early Shorter Blue Notes, and vice versa, it showed how he moved forward to create new ground from the experiences that shaped John Coltrane’s music.  From the Milestone period, Tyner carved his stake in the burgeoning so called “spiritual jazz” movement, the albums taking on Afrocentric ideals, and the sing song melodies of many pieces, like “Ebony Queen” and “Fly Like The Wind” were canvases for stirring modal improvisation.  Tyner experimented further with instrumentation, such as his appearances on flute, koto and celeste, never quite approaching jazz-rock or jazz-funk, but recordings like the seminal Enlightenment (1973) and Atlantis (1975) bristle with an overwhelmingly intense rockish energy.  “Valley Of Life”, from Sahara, his 1972 Milestone debut found him overdubbing koto, percussion and flute in his own idiosyncratic way, a meditative reflection long before “new age” was a category.  To be fair, as a piece it is far more interesting than a lot of what comes out of that genre.

As a solo pianist, Tyner was simply superb.  His sense of dynamics were incredible, like Cecil Taylor, truly treating the piano as a percussion instrument, yet at the same time demonstrating  thorough grasp of the entire piano lineage from Earl “Fatha” Hines to the present.  Milestone recordings as well as later period Blue Note, Impulse and Telarc  offerings captured the massive dynamic range of his solo performances in a way his classic Blue Note albums do not, with their square mid range piano.  As the pianist entered his later years, he pared down the frenetic energy of his right hand runs mixing in some chordal passages, never losing sight of the powerful fourths and fifths in the left hand.


The legacy of McCoy Tyner is one that will live on through the multitudes of pianists that followed in his footsteps. The Poetic Language of Jazz Improvisation taught by Marc Mommaas, at New York Jazz Workshop can give greater into Tyner’s innovations.

2019 Jazz Grammys Overview: Best Jazz Instrumental Album

CurtJazz gives his take on the 2019 Best Jazz Instrumental Album nominees; along with a few disappointing snubs and unscientific predictions


In the second of the two biggest jazz categories, we have a race between a great saxophonist who is finally earning a little recognition; two of the finest pianists working today; a respected veteran who is still getting it done and a true legend, admired and respected by all.

The nominees are:

Tia Fuller

The crackle from the moment her alto enters…twenty seconds into the first tune (“In the Trenches”), I had that feeling that this album was going to be a great one. Ms. Tia Fuller has been on the scene for over a decade. She has paid the bills for a while, working with Beyonce’s road band, but whenever she steps into the studio under her own name, she is an unapologetic jazz player. She hadn’t released a project in six years, prior to Diamond Cut. She has been missed. This project is different in many ways, from her previous four albums; for one thing, it is produced by the amazing Terri Lyne Carrington. For another, there’s no piano. Guitarist Adam Rogers handles the chordal duties. And, there are two different bass/drum duos, splitting the work; James Genus and Bill Stewart are one set and the other two, you may have heard of: Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette. As for Ms. Fuller’s sound, clearly, the Berklee professor was ready to take everyone to school. She masters what she needs to be in that moment; she is at turns, gritty, soulful and even a bit on the outside. Diamond Cut is a very strong album and Ms. Fuller deserves her first Grammy nomination for it. However, this category also features someone who has been making great music since before Tia was born. Most likely, it will be his night.

Fred Hersch Trio

This Fred Hersch album has been nominated for two Grammys. The odds of Hersch winning either are fairly long, despite the fact that it is another excellent disc, from one of the finest pianists of our time. What is the problem? Part of it may be timing; Mr. Hersch seems to often run up against a hot project that has caught the attention of the jazz public and media. When this happens, other master musicians, like Hersch, get lost in the noise. Another issue may be his steady excellence. Hersch is not flashy. Even though he wrote an interesting and well received autobiography in 2017, and he has had some fascinating life issues over the past few years, he still generally, flies under the radar. Fred Hersch is so uniformly good, that he is taken for granted. He has been nominated for 14 Grammys. Hopefully, the voters will wise up soon. This year, I don’t think it will be in this category.

Brad Mehldau Trio

The story behind this album’s title, is as interesting as it should be. Apparently, Mr. Mehldau has a dream, in which the late, Oscar winning actor, Seymour Phillip Hoffman, was reading the U.S. Constitution. The tune that Mehldau heard, accompanying Hoffman’s voice, became the inspiration for the title track. Despite the odd title, Seymour Reads the Constitution!, is the most accessible album that I’ve heard from Brad Mehldau, in quite a while. The trio swings hard through a collection of originals, standards, minor jazz classics and Beach Boys tunes (yes, you heard right), with gusto and without condescension. Like Hersch, Mehldau is double nominated for this album (his 9th, without a win, so far). It’s fine work but he’s likely to run into a “Shorter” wall here. In the Best Instrumental Solo category, however, he’s got a good shot.

Joshua Redman, Ron Miles, Scott Colley & Brian Blade

I can’t believe that the saxophone wunderkind of the 90’s, Joshua Redman, has just turned 50. I can believe that he is still evolving and getting stronger at his craft, more than 25 years after he first floored us jazzheads with his debut album. Though he is the son of a famed avant-gardist, his early years were deeply in the tradition (as I’m sure Warner Bros. wanted it). On this latest album, which garnered his seventh nomination, he pays tribute to his dad, Dewey, and Old and New Dreams, a group that Dewey played in, from the mid 70’s through the mid 80’s. That group, which also included legends Charlie Haden and Don Cherry, itself paid homage to their mentor, the patron saint of avant-garde jazz, Ornette Coleman. Still Dreaming is excellent, start to finish – terrific compositions and it stretches the boundaries of form, without completely breaking them. It is similar to Christian McBride’s New Jawn album, also from last year. I confess that I only gave this album a passing listen upon its release, but now that I’ve returned to it, I truly dig it, a lot. Perhaps it should have been on my Best of 2018 list. However, we are talking Grammy here, folks. Redman has never won one. He is a respected veteran and his star has stretched outside of the insular jazz world at times, over the past quarter century. But, due to the presence of our next nominee, I’m afraid that his wait is likely to extend beyond this weekend.

The Wayne Shorter Quartet

Wayne Shorter is a true musical legend. He one of the greatest jazz saxophonists and composers of our time. In addition to his work as a leader, he has been an integral part of three of the greatest groups in jazz history. He has created transcendent musical art in every decade since the early 1960s. He has been nominated for a Grammy 21 times and has, so far, won 10, including a Lifetime Achievement Award, in 2015. He is also now 85 years old. So no one would blame Wayne Shorter, if he were to simply sit back, at this point and collect all of the accolades that are due to him, no one would be upset. So what does he do? He creates a symphonic masterpiece and releases it, in an epic three CD (God only knows how many LP) set, that includes a graphic novel. These new and challenging compositions are performed by a symphony orchestra and then live, by his current working quartet! Emanon is a brilliant work of musical art (I confess that I have not yet seen the graphic novel). I hope that Mr. Shorter has more in him and keeps sharing it with us, for at least another 20 years. If, as some have said, this is his final work, then it is a towering valedictory. Will he win this Grammy? Ummm, Yeah.

As for the opinions and unscientific predictions:

Should have been nominated:

Origami Harvest – Ambrose Akinmusire; Both Directions at Once (The Lost Album) – John Coltrane; The Future is Female – Roxy Coss

Who should win: Wayne Shorter

Who will win: Wayne Shorter

I would not be disappointed to see them win: Tia Fuller