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My Musings on McCoy

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Legendary jazz pianist, McCoy Tyner passed away on Friday. He was 81 years old. I had the great fortune of meeting and getting to be around Mr. Tyner during my time with Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC) 2000–2006. I was even able to introduce him to my prepubescent son, Wynton Kelly Stone Guess, who got the chance to sit at the piano before him and play Thelonious Monk’s Crepuscule with Nellie.

The first time I heard McCoy and really paid attention to him was on John Coltrane’s Coltrane album. It was almost exactly 30 years ago in the Spring of 1990. I had just graduated from college and had started my first real job as an Actuarial Assistant at Capital Holding in my hometown of Louisville, KY. My cubicle mate was an older Indian gentleman. His name was Edmund D’Souza. Like me, Edmund was also aspiring to be an actuary. He had a portable CD player on his desk and a pair of Walkman style headphones with orange foam over the earpieces. The one CD that he listened to the most was the Coltrane album.

What I didn’t know at the time was that Edmund was drawn to Coltrane because of the saxophonist’s affinity and exploration into Indian music. One day Edmund saw me looking at his CD and asked me if I liked John Coltrane. To be honest, I hadn’t really checked out Coltrane at the time. I had heard the name, but didn’t really know his music.

“You don’t know who John Coltrane is,” he said. “But you’re black!”
Edmund must have believed that the American Negro should feel about Coltrane the way we believe Indians should feel about Ghandi — and if that was actually true, then I can’t say that I disagree with him.

That album opened up a whole new world to me. McCoy’s incomparable comping style were his musical fingerprints that made his playing immediately recognizable to me. His soloing sounded to me like he was playing a musical typewriter. The ticky, tacky, steady stream of notes flowing from each of his fingers sounds as if he is firing off a string of missives and manifestos, be it a terse complaint to city hall, a letter to the editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer or even a personal note to a loved one that he missed while on the road.

He was a force of nature who played the piano like no other.

I spoke with my good friend and colleague Eugene Holley, Jr. yesterday. We were both lamenting the loss of the legend.

“I can’t believe that [McCoy] is no longer with us,” he said.

“He’s with us as much today as he was yesterday,” I said. “His discography makes it so that he will always be with us.”

I am grateful for the presence of his music in my life over the past three decades, but also that I got a chance to actually spend time with him. Even though I didn’t see or hear him much in person after my stint with JALC, I was still very much surrounded by his presence and his music. My dear friend and management client, bassist Christian McBride performs McCoy’s compositions all the time with his various bands. McBride’s big band arrangement of Tyner’s Sahara is a tour de force that is perfectly befitting of the composer’s persona.

McBride is also known to park himself at the piano pre and post soundcheck on the road while we are all waiting for things to come together. Sometimes you’ll find him busying those fat fingers of his on the keyboard trying to type out one of McCoy’s masterful messages. There’s a few typos in there for sure, but you can still get the gist of the message.

On more than one occasion I’ve been in a vehicle with McBride on our way to the airport or the venue or to an interview when he has sat next to me completely engrossed in the music that is coming out of his $4.99 off brand earbuds — that brother is definitely not going to spend $249 or a pair of AirPods. Out of no where he comes out of his trance and sticks one of his earbuds in my ear and starts maneuvering his right hand in the air before eventually landing on my shoulder, tapping out the succinct syncopation of the rhythm that is seeping into my ear.

“Damn, McCoy,” he’d say. “How can somebody do that on piano?”

That’s one thing that McBride has in common with his fellow Philadelphian homeboy, both of them do stuff on their respective instruments that thankfully no one ever told them that they weren’t supposed to do.

I’m even more thankful that my son was able to meet him and experience his music.

His words on Tyner are below:

In the past day or so there has been a general outpouring in jazz community over the passing of one of the great piano legends McCoy Tyner. Along with the beautifully chaotic Elvin Jones, McCoy helped Coltrane forge his iconic style that would evolve into a complete deconstruction of jazz. Personally for me, McCoy was a huge influence on my playing and thinking along with the freedom Marc Cary imbued in me as a teenager. His playing contained key wisdom for me as a pianist to a key question about soloing in jazz. How does one solo without referring to Bebop licks and the general assorted cliches that masquerade as the língua franca of jazz.

The piano has a key limitation that horns do not, which is its absolute grounding with its notes being fixed. The liminal area between notes which provide an escape from melodic responsibilities in horns is not present in piano. What McCoy chose to do in this context is rather counterintuitive. He completely rooted himself with the fifth, the most stable interval, as a pedal point. He also was able to bring a melodic quality to his harmonic playing with phrasing the chords he played in a beautiful type of inner voice leading. The incessant rhythm provided a counterpoint to Elvin’s chaos and the pedals — which can also be found in the right hand chords as well — provided nodes of stability in a sea of high intensity noise. This high intensity was key into what made him truly great.

Through the borderline ritualistic return to that low fifth allowed him to build momentum and switch to different points of modality within the overall harmonic context he was playing in — he would literally play himself into a trance. His solo in Afro Blue on Live in Seattle is a perfect example. He alternates between building tension with contrasting pedals before letting it rip. The A flat pedal, the culmination of this build is a remarkable moment of “the get down” in what had for the most part been an atonal affair on the part of the horns.

McCoy probably has one of the most recognizable styles which in my opinion is quintessentially pianistic, unlike a huge amount of jazz pianists who more so resemble Bebop horn players with a left hand rather than a pianist in the most basic sense. I am grateful that I was able to meet and play for him as a child. I am musically in debt to him as I develop more as a pianist and composer and his music will continue to be sources of wisdom.

The mortal world has lost a legend. However, his life lives on and for the moment, the circle remains unbroken.

About the author

Andre Kimo Stone Guess
Andre Kimo Stone Guess

Andre Kimo Stone Guess is a writer and cultural critic from the Smoketown neighborhood in Louisville, Kentucky. He was VP and Producer for Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York and CEO of the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in Pittsburgh. He now runs GuessWorks, Inc. with his wife Cheryl.

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