While I knew it was coming, it is surreal to now inhabit a world without McCoy Tyner. If the ONLY thing he had ever done was play in the classic Coltrane quartet, people would be quite rightly eulogizing him left and right. But at the same time, he was playing on some other superlatively important albums, including some of his own, and (with apologies to fans of Paul McCartney, Diana Ross, etc.) I can’t think of a single artist whose work AFTER leaving an acknowledged “supergroup” can match McCoy’s output in terms of sheer amount, consistent quality, and scope of influence. That’s just one way in which he was a singular figure in music.
I had been compiling this list for a while, and hearing of maestro Tyner’s passing was the sad impetus to finish it up. Like so many other jazz musicians, I came up listening obsessively to McCoy. In high school, I devoured his early work in John Coltrane’s early Atlantic-era quartet and his then-contemporary solo and duo albums Revelations and Things Ain’t What They Used to Be, followed by Wayne Shorter’s Juju. My first legit NYC jazz show (and, now that I recall, my first solo NYC train trip) was McCoy’s trio with Ron Carter and Al Foster at Fat Tuesday’s. As an adult I can point to specific things about his harmony, phrasing, and sheer physicality at the instrument that are unique to him, but at the time I just thought that was what jazz piano was supposed to be.
These are presented in chronological order, not suggesting any order of preference. It’s often hard/absurd to narrow down the work of one of my heroes to 10 tracks, and for McCoy it’s not an exaggeration to say that narrowing down to 100 would have been hard. So here I focused on breadth, with each track chosen here being the tip of an iceberg for which I could do an entirely separate top 10 list within a particular subcategory. As it is, I’m omitting work with some of my favorite McCoy-collaborators (John Blake, Jr., Joe Henderson, Tony Williams, Freddie Hubbard, Azar Lawrence, Al Foster, Avery Sharpe, etc.). If you love McCoy like I do, please share tracks that particularly move you. If you occupy a different musical realm and you’re just hearing about him in the wake of the news of his passing, take this list as an offering for some starting-point suggestions.
1 ) “Night Has A Thousand Eyes” by John Coltrane from Coltrane’s Sound (1960)
To represent Atlantic-era Coltrane, it was hard to omit “My Favorite Things” (which was my first obsessive source of McCoy-exposure and an object lesson in patience and restraint) and I could easily have put his original tune “Aisha.” But if one song to me exemplifies this group’s sound and Tyner’s capacity for fury while still working to integrate his bebop vocabulary with his modern harmonic concept, it’s this one.
2 ) “Effendi” from Inception (1962)
One track from Impulse!-era McCoy, and it had to be this album, which Bill Fielder (aka “Prof”) turned me on to when I was 18, talking about the unique rhythmic unity that McCoy, Elvin Jones, and Art Davis had together. This is a classic Tyner composition and a great example of how hard he and Elvin could swing together.
3 ) “Mahjong” by Wayne Shorter from Juju (1964)
From the numerous Blue Note records by Wayne Shorter that McCoy boosted, I picked this track because a) it blew my mind when I was 17 – I listened to this whole album a ton, but I would play this track over and over – and b) perhaps more than any of those tunes, I simply cannot imagine it without McCoy. It’s interesting that his soloing is particularly restrained – he could have blown fast runs throughout, but the focus is on the mood he sets.
4 ) “Pursuance” by John Coltrane from A Love Supreme (1964)
When Coltrane went bonkers (if you’ll forgive the technical term), one of two things typically happened from the piano chair – either he got out of the way or he leaned in and took it to the stratosphere. The second and third (this one) movements of A Love Supreme demonstrate the latter, and between his ferocious soloing and his subsequent accompaniment, I have seldom heard anything this powerful in any musical setting.
5 ) “Sunny” by Stanley Turrentine from The Spoiler (1966)
Given his visionary modernity, it’s easy to forget just how funky McCoy could be, but he played on so many 1960s Blue Note sessions that invariably he’d be tasked somewhat often with holding down a boogaloo. Here he digs in and plays the blues (albeit through an unmistakable filter of Tynerisms) accompanying Turrentine and Blue Mitchell and on his own solos.
6 ) “Visions” from Expansions (1968)
It might be heresy to represent his solo work for Blue Note without The Real McCoy but this was the first of those albums I encountered, and it was at once mind-blowing and totally natural. After all, why shouldn’t these kinds of gnarly harmonies be used in horn sections (in this case the wrecking crew of Wayne Shorter, Gary Bartz, Woody Shaw and honorary “horn” Ron Carter on cello) and why shouldn’t songs be this cathartically intense?
7 ) “The Discovery” from Echoes of a Friend (1972)
This album is his first album-length solo piano recital, and it is epic. This 17+ minute track in particular is a great place to get a sense of the scope of his conception as a solo pianist, presented here in the context of a program dedicated to his friend and of course employer, John Coltrane. Tyner-philes often characterize his 1970s output for the Milestone label as the full realization of his sound and legacy, and as important as his 1960s work was, it’s hard to argue with that.
8 ) “Fly With the Wind” from Fly With the Wind (1976)
Speaking of epic, his 1970s Milestone group sessions were intense in a way that at once continued some of the textural and energetic spirit of high energy that his most celebrated work in the 1960s embodied, but developing the sounds in new ways that were uniquely his and utterly distinct from the Coltrane quartet. This is particularly evident on this album with a super-intense small group (featuring Billy Cobham and Hubert Laws) augmented by an orchestra. There are surely more technical ways of describing it, but this music just sounds and feels huge.
9 ) “My One And Only Love” from Things Ain’t What They Used to Be (1989)
When my friend Amanda Monaco gave me a copy of this album in high school, I enjoyed the whole thing – mostly solo piano, with a couple duets each with John Scofield and George Adams. I was green enough that I not only didn’t know who George Adams was, but had not even heard Charles Mingus (his most famous employer) yet and had also never heard this song (much less its most famous version, with McCoy’s iconic playing alongside John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman). What I did know was that hearing this incredibly soulful performance represented one of the small handful of moments in which I understood that a jazz ballad didn’t have to be the boring slow song but could actually provide moments of unmatched emotional intensity.
10 ) “Contemplation” from Land of Giants (2002)
As his sound got denser in some ways, he also never stopped swinging. I almost included his grooving take on Burt Bacharach’s “(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me” but opted for this potent take on one of his most beloved tunes from The Real McCoy 35 years prior, here featuring Bobby Hutcherson his longtime partner in organically melding the hyper-modern and the earthily soulful.