For McCoy Tyner, one of the most pivotal moments in his musical evolution was also one of the most casual. "My mom asked me, 'Do you mind if Bud Powell uses our piano?' He came in and played my piano and I offered him a sandwich. Years later, I saw him in Paris and said, 'Remember me, Bud?' and he said, 'Of course I remember you.' Then he said, 'Hey, loan me a few bucks.' I said, 'Hey, come on.' "
Thirty years after his passing, Powell remains one of the definitive architects of the bebop piano style. He was also something of a mentor to Tyner, who was just a teenager when Powell sat down at his piano. Still, it didn't take Tyner long to realize that he needed to find his own voice -- even if he had no idea that his place in jazz history would be right there alongside Powell. Tyner's trademark runs, multiple harmonies, and novel use of modes and pentatonic scales have influenced generations of jazz keyboardists, making him the most influential pianist to come out of the late 1950s this side of Bill Evans.
"I never wanted to copy anyone," Tyner says. "Even though I loved Bud and listened to his recordings and tried to play his little tunes as a teenager, I knew that at 16 I could never be Bud Powell. I would have to be myself. What my predecessors taught me is that you can't copy them. Even if you were in awe of them, they listened for what you had to say. They taught us not by literal hands-on teaching, but just from what they did. Consequently, I was able to put in my two cents in terms of the development of jazz piano. But it was only because I thought like an individual."
Exceedingly gracious and friendly, Tyner came about his unique late-'50s reputation with the popular Art Farmer-Benny Golson Jazztet. Then, in 1960, he joined visionary saxophonist John Coltrane's legendary quartet. Turning the jazz scene upside down and inside out, the John Coltrane Quartet was a powerful unit that stretched jazz boundaries through its leader's tonal explorations and avant-garde leanings. Tyner's open-block chords and complex, single-note runs set up Coltrane better than any other pianist before or after. Much like bebop in the '40s and fusion in the late '60s, the Quartet's confusing output quickly divided the jazz community, and Coltrane's playing was as revered as it was dismissed.
While any negative response affected Coltrane, Tyner ignored the critics and encouraged his friend to do the same. "I used to tell him, 'Don't even give it a second thought.' You can't please everybody. It's impossible," says Tyner. "If you make up your mind to do something, and someone says, 'Aw man, what the heck are you doing that for? You're wrong.' By whose standards? His or yours? Whose life is it? Yours or his? The residual effect of your decisions: Is it going to affect him or you? There are certain basic questions you ask, and you come up with some simple answers."
During his time with Coltrane, Tyner made several solo recordings in a more traditional vein, all of which revealed him to be a top-drawer band leader and soloist. Tyner himself was quite pleased with the results, and after five years with Coltrane, he left the Quartet in 1965 to pursue a solo career. "You can go a long way with a person, and then you can get absorbed completely if you go too far," Tyner says. "I traveled as far as I could. I had some other things in mind that I wanted to do myself. I wasn't in a hurry to go anywhere, but it was just time for me to leave."
The years immediately following his departure from Coltrane's quartet proved difficult for Tyner. He recorded several albums, but the marketplace for acoustic jazz was drying up due to the immense popularity of electrified jazz/rock fusion. But Tyner stuck to his guns, and by 1972 his resolve paid off in the form of a deal with the Milestone label. Since then, his solo career has soared, artistically and otherwise. He's recorded dozens of albums for several labels. His catalog is extremely varied stylistically: There have been Coltrane and Burt Bacharach tributes, big band recordings, studio sessions with quintets, quartets and trios, and, of course, plenty of solo work.
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"I do things in contrast," Tyner says. "If I do this, I may do something else to mix it up. Then I'll go back. I like to put myself in different positions. I'm not a sequel person. I think you have to challenge yourself."
Fittingly, Tyner hasn't a clue what's in store for him next. And though his position as a jazz legend is secure, don't expect him to coast.
"We have a tremendous tradition to uphold," he says. "Not that I'm such a traditionalist, but I do believe that there are lot of people who sacrificed their lives and everything else to play this music. There's an obligation there."
McCoy Tyner performs Friday, November 6, at Cullen Theater, Wortham Theater Center, 500 Texas. Showtime is 8 p.m. Tickets are $25-$35. For info, call Da Camera of Houston at 524-7601.