Only a resentful rival could confuse McCoy Tyner's vigorous, lusty approach to the keyboard with a destructive intent. "There is a false rumor," Tyner said, "that I destroy pianos. I don't do that. The only ones I destroy are the bad ones."
After emerging from a lengthy stint with John Coltrane (1960-65), Tyner became, during the 1970s, the most influential pianist of his generation. For many years he has toured with his own group; tonight he opens at the Vine St. Bar & Grill with his regular trio lineup (Louis Hayes on drums, Avery Sharpe on bass).
Distilling elements from Africa, Brazil, the Middle East and the Orient, he has gone through many changes and feels that today he has reached a new level of achievement. "I'm satisfied with my work now," he said. "I think I'm playing with more maturity, and more rhythmically. I'm still basically a very rhythmic person."
Curiously, he points to his first solo album, "Inception" on Impulse, as his personal favorite, though he has advanced immeasurably in the 25 years since then. Today, his pulsing, often modal patterns, his rising and falling waves of coloristic creativity, are in their own class; he has become almost a one-man idiom.
His achievements over the years have been reflected in a series of accolades, such as the Down Beat "Jazzman of the Year" award in 1975, '76 and '77, and the readers' poll pick as No. 1 pianist annually from 1974 to 1980. His group also won four times in the Down Beat Critics' Poll. On records he won two "Album of the Year" prizes, though his relationship with the recording industry has been somewhat erratic.
"I started recording for Impulse, where I'd made all the albums with Coltrane," Tyner said. "Then I went with Blue Note, where I respected Alfred Lion as a producer with a real feeling for jazz. The best relationship of all was with Milestone in the 1970s, where Orrin Keepnews, another great producer, gave me complete freedom." One of Tyner's best products during that period was "Four X Four," a two-record set with such guest soloists as Freddie Hubbard, Bobby Hutcherson, John Abercrombie and Arthur Blythe.
A less agreeable relationship was his incumbency at CBS in the early 1980s. Not surprisingly, he went through the "little fish in a big pond" experience. "Bruce Lundvall, who invited me over there, left soon afterward. Bruce had a great roster of jazz musicians, but when he left I soon found out that if you don't have a spokesman in the executive department, you're in trouble.
"They concentrated on Wynton Marsalis, working hard with him--and the heck with Miles Davis and everyone else; that's why Miles left and went with Warner Bros. That was a strange situation, so I left CBS and haven't been under contract to anyone since then, though I have been recording for Denon and other labels."
Tyner has occasionally worked with synthesizers and electric keyboards, but has reservations: "For coloration and background, electric instruments can be interesting, but I would never give up the acoustic piano."
Over the years Tyner has flexed his compositional muscles with larger ensembles, sometimes involving a string section. One of his best-remembered LPs along these lines is "Fly With the Wind" on Milestone, for which he composed and arranged almost all the music.
"Actually," he says, "I have a big band right now, at least occasionally. It's 14 strong, with tuba, French horn, three trumpets and four reeds; I do most of the writing. The orchestra made its debut in my hometown, Philadelphia, and we've had some wonderful reviews, but right now I only put it together three times a year to play at Fat Tuesday's in New York."
Tyner would like nothing more than to give the orchestra wider exposure, either through a short tour ("I wouldn't want the financial burden of keeping it together permanently") or an occasional concert at one of the jazz festivals. He expects to record the orchestra soon.
His ambitions do not end there. Incorporating the orchestra, he'd like to write a musical show. "It would be a jazz musical, like some of the things Duke Ellington did. There has been some interest expressed in this idea, especially in Europe. I'd like to write most of the lyrics myself, too--I did some lyrics for one of the CBS albums.
"It will be a hard job--it might take a whole year to put it all together--but I like to think of it as another challenge that has to be dealt with. You know, you have to keep moving on."