Jazz an ongoing experiment for McCoy Tyner
When he sits at the piano, McCoy Tyner offers both a lesson in jazz history and a provocative nudge toward the future.
In conversation, he’ll freely tell stories about the times Bud Powell and John Coltrane, already greats of the field, stopped by his mother’s Philadelphia beauty parlor to join jam sessions he hosted while still a teenager. But his band offers a nightly laboratory in musical adventure, refining the innovations of his mature style while proving there’s a world of discovery to be found within the crags of a familiar tune.
“I don’t forget my past,” he says on the phone from his home in Bergenfield, N.J., “but I’m not trying to repeat it, ’cause it's done. I always try to look ahead and see what’s next.”
The sole surviving veteran of the group known as Coltrane’s “classic quartet,” Tyner has continued to rewrite the lexicon of jazz piano after those heady years in the early-to-mid-1960s that yielded some of Coltrane’s most admired work, including the peerless “A Love Supreme.”
He’s brought his distinctive style, marked by a complex harmonic vocabulary and a percussive sensibility (articulated with a forceful left hand), to the big band format and explorations of Latin flavors. But his trio and quartet work has been prolific, freely probing the inner space of unexpected chord voicings and harmonies without jettisoning the song form.
His shows at the Regattabar on Friday and Saturday feature alto saxman Gary Bartz alongside bassist Gerald Cannon and drummer Francisco Mela.
Coltrane’s signature quartet bridged his theory-drenched recordings like “Giant Steps” and the much more “out” work of his last years including larger combos and more of a free-form agenda. But no soloist can coherently venture farther than his rhythm section will support.
Tyner pioneered a route along that thorny path, authoring a road map for other musicians to follow.
“Playing with him is very freeing,” Bartz says of Tyner, speaking from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music where he teaches. “His harmonic influence, the way he comps, the way he can follow. I think he was probably one of the first pianists who was able to play behind a soloist who was playing freer, outside of the harmony. He was one of the first to be able to figure out how to do that.”
The pianist left Coltrane’s band after the leader started venturing toward the stellar regions of jazz, but Tyner says his motivation for the break was a desire to focus on his own recordings. “You can’t stay with mommy and daddy forever,” he says, breaking into a chuckle.
He’s since released a long string of well-received albums, winning five Grammy Awards and earning the honorific of Jazz Master from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Tyner continues to seek new contexts for his now-familiar style. The 2008 album “Guitars” features an acoustic trio plus alternating guests including Marc Ribot and Derek Trucks. His most recent album, released the next year, is culled from a live appearance on solo piano. (He says he has the next project in mind, but isn’t ready to reveal it.)
Bartz’s present spot in Tyner’s band furthers a musical relationship stretching back to the 1960s, including some influential dates for the Blue Note label to close that decade and Tyner’s Latin All-Stars Band, which released an album in 1999. Bartz was playing a gig in Tyner’s combo, in fact, when one Miles Davis walked in and was impressed with his work, inviting the saxophonist to join Davis’s band — the snarling, electric combo featured on one half of “Live-Evil” in 1971.
“It’s a good marriage,” Bartz says of his work with Tyner. “A band is like a laboratory where you’re doing experiments and you learn, and once you’ve done so many experiments, you understand what’s happening and so you go with it.”
Tyner’s bands are not showcases for the leader; he takes particular care to offer repeated solo spots to each of his sidemen throughout a set. (Bartz or the others may even call the tunes.) He sees his band as a place for accomplished players to hone their interplay and make advances.
When the drum chair in his band opened up in 2009, he tapped up-and-comer Mela, a Cuban native who moved to Boston to attend Berklee College of Music in his early 30s and promptly became an instructor there.
“I like to initiate learning with the younger guys. They come in with a serious attitude, and I like that about them,” Tyner says. “I want it to be a school when you play with me. The guys who play with me say they learned a lot, and I’m very thankful they look at it that way.”
Though songs from the Coltrane years still dot his sets, Tyner veers away from musical nostalgia. His aim isn’t to revisit the past, he says, but to use his history as a launching pad toward the new.
“I recorded a lot of music with John, and I can’t describe what I find in it except that it’s still interesting, because John’s stuff is so rich musically. It’s really an experience, just playing the song.”
He's traveled a long way since the days of those beauty parlor jams, but Tyner is not yet finished seeking.