McCoy Tyner’s Quiet Revolutions

Read An Excerpt From The Liner Notes For Our Reissue Of ‘Sahara’

On June 25th 2020 » By Natalie Weiner

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“An African instrument is not the piano; an African village is not the Both/And; an African Waltz is not in ¾,” wrote Michael S. Harper in his 1971 poem “Time For Tyner: Folksong.” It appears to depict some one-off performance in a drafty bar, while laying out some of the contradictions — between making art and fighting for justice, in searching for heritage when yours has been brutally robbed — that pianist McCoy Tyner was just starting to explore with the 1969 album that inspired the poem’s title.

Harper, known best for his 1970 book Dear John, Dear Coltrane, was a good friend of Tyner’s; no doubt he was present at some of the gigs where Time For Tyner was workshopped. The release features two of Tyner’s earliest forays into pan-African musical concepts, at least as a bandleader: “African Village” and “Little Madimba.” (“The Man From Tanganyika,” from Tender Moments, was recorded just six months before.)

Of course, Tyner had long experimented with non-Western modalities alongside John Coltrane, pushing through the suddenly archaic norms of bop and swing. Left to his own devices, though, he spent the late ’60s and early ’70s — a commercial low point in his career, during which he spent his days working at a shipping center and debated dropping music altogether to drive a cab — circling ever closer to a new vision of pan-African-inflected post-bop that would eventually wind up realized on 1972’s Sahara. Only with that album, which was nominated for two Grammys and stayed on the Billboard jazz charts for months, was Tyner’s critical and commercial relevance ultimately revived.

Sahara’s reach is surprising, by contemporary standards. It’s a knotty, bold, unpredictable piece of work — jazz may have been on the cusp of a mainstream resurgence thanks to slick, funk-tinged grooves from The Crusaders and The Black Byrds, but Tyner’s esoteric improvisations and unorthodox arrangements were much closer to the music’s avant-garde. The album’s pan-African sounds and polyrhythms weren’t meant to give listeners something to grab onto or to make his music more dance-floor friendly, but instead to deepen the degree of abstraction. It’s cacophonous and confrontational. There’s nothing reassuring about the work, and yet it’s next to impossible to stop listening; its experiments don’t alienate you, they compel you to come along for the ride.

Part of Sahara’s relatively broad appeal might also be explained by the popularity of the Black Nationalist movement and parallel interest in African art and culture. Tyner was far from the only musician turning to a non-Western, and specifically pan-African take on the avant-garde in the early ’70s — Pharoah Sanders, Herbie Hancock, Sun Ra and Alice Coltrane were just some of the many artists mining similar influences — but he was among the earliest and the most forceful.

“We would do a lot of things that had this African sound,” Bobby Hutcherson said in an interview with NPR about his work with Tyner. “You could really identify with the Blackness of the tune. It sounded Black. You’d hear it and you’d say, ‘That’s my brother — go on brother!’ It sounded like it was music that had come across on that ship and it had made it, and it had struggled.” Though Tyner and his peers often performed non-Western music rooted in a quest for spiritual fulfillment, their choices still reflected contemporary ideology about the kinds of earthly liberties found in reclaiming one’s culture. On Sahara’s cover, he sits holding his koto in his lap amid some seemingly “urban renewal”-induced rubble; editorials published around the same time lamented the loss of the very West Philadelphia neighborhood where Tyner grew up to similar projects, and the attendant loss of rich local jazz and arts history. In describing his Tyner-induced musical reverie, Harper can’t help but note that, “It is a political evening … his [presumably, Tyner’s] liner notes pucker/on our lips in this country/abiding and earless.”

What does it mean to pursue the style and sound of a place you’ve never been, but are from? What does it mean to recapture the sound of some long-lost freedom, especially in a place determined to keep you from that same liberation? What does it mean to perform music that implicitly rejects the approachable norms that make the word jazz anathema to artists then and now?

Yet even as he performed at benefits for the NAACP and the Black Panthers, Tyner was uncomfortable with fully embracing the idea that his work was part of a political project. “They wanted to put it in some kind of political context,” he told NPR later in life of activists like Angela Davis, “and I wasn’t so thrilled with that.”

Clearly Tyner didn’t see himself as apolitical, but he resisted the idea that it was music for a movement in spite of the obvious parallels. “There’s kind of a mutual exchange,” Tyner explained in a 1970 interview with The Black Scholar — an interview in which he insists that he is not involved in politics. “This music, even though it’s universal, moves only as far as Black people move in this country. All the political, social and cultural developments we experience here influence this music.”

In the same interview, he was asked about “jazz” music — specifically, what he called it. “This is the African system of music,” he said simply. “It is an extension of the whole body of Black experience.”

Those two ideas — the rootedness, however abstract, in African culture, and a holistic concept of music as self — had been part of Tyner’s artistic identity from the start.

Growing up in Philadelphia, he was a prodigious piano talent. As he was gigging in his teens and beginning to plot a way out of Philly (by 21, he would be in Coltrane’s quartet), Tyner encountered both African music and Islamic belief for the first time. He accompanied dance classes at a school where Ghanaian drummer Saka Acquaye also taught, and learned about that music from him; at 16, he first heard Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X speak, inspiring what would soon become a lifelong religious practice.

“At the time, there was a lot of identification with the Africans,” Tyner said in a 2003 interview with Ted Panken. “Not political. Cultural. Everybody wants to politicize it. But I think cultural identification is good.”

He was also practicing so much at the piano in his mother’s beauty salon (which also happened to be the family’s living room) that people started crowding around the windows to watch. His neighbor Bud Powell would occasionally come around and play, but mostly Tyner was already seeking a level of intuitive expression that would separate him from both his heroes and his peers. He sought to make the piano just an extension of his arm, and reiterated over and over again that any innovation was only really a matter of him (and everyone else) not being the same person he was the day before.

“Unless you let it, music never need become stagnant, because it’s always there for you to tell in it exactly how and what you’re feeling,” he explained in the liner notes for his 1962 debut, Inception. “And since you always change, the music changes with you.”

That’s one reason why it’s tricky to talk about McCoy Tyner without wading into abstraction and metaphor — they’re his preferred modes of expression. Faith, self, identity, spirituality are all right there on the surface, both in the way he talks about his work and the work itself.

The elements and nature come up often as people describe him, seemingly the only way to adequately characterize his clarity of purpose — his “firm sense of self-order,” as Nat Hentoff described it. “I prefer wood and metal; they’re closer to nature,” Tyner said on the original liner notes for Sahara, by way of explanation for his disinterest in electric pianos. “It’s like gut strings being warmer than steel strings. And on acoustic piano you can sound like water, like mountains, like so many things.”

Though Tyner was just 27 when he left John Coltrane’s quartet in late 1965, he’d already lived a master class in earnest, searching musical spirituality via his playing with the prolific group. All that was left was to continue the quest on his own terms — which he promptly did with four Blue Note albums that, though each singular, failed to make a big enough impression commercially for him to offer his young family some stability. They also were insufficient in molding his reputation into something beyond “a member of John Coltrane’s classic quartet.”

A trip “to the Far East” in 1967, as the Expansions liner notes describe it, offered further inspiration for his experiments with non-Western tonality and rhythm (and may have been the source of the koto he plays on Sahara). But after Expansions — perhaps unimpressed by both his sales and the rapid movement away from any semblance of swing — Blue Note essentially stopped issuing his recordings, which had evolved into large-ensemble works and extended, prescient jams in line with the rapidly coalescing “spiritual jazz” scene. At least, that is, until they saw the success of Sahara, Tyner’s first album for Milestone, at which point they dropped late‘60s and early ’70s recordings Extensions (which features Alice Coltrane), Asante (which featured James Mtume in one of his earliest recordings), and Cosmos in quick succession.

Tyner’s increasingly free-form music coincided with explicit statements about how he saw his art as connected to his identity as a Black man. “I am the music I play; in trying to explain the direction of my music, I can only base it on the direction that I, McCoy Tyner, pursue in life,” he said on the Extensions liner notes. “Music tells a story: It may summarize the past or redirect the future. Compositions written and played by Black musicians are vehicles to express the struggles and sufferings of Black people.”

“Unless you let it, music never need become stagnant, because it’s always there for you to tell in it exactly how and what you’re feeling. And since you always change, the music changes with you.”

McCoy Tyner

They also coincided with increasing critical confusion around his work. Former fans with sway like Leonard Feather and New York Times critic John S. Wilson derided his early ’70s gigs as too loud and chaotic. “Gone is the easy, gentle swing,” Feather wrote in 1971. “Essentially this is one of those units that can be credited only for its intensity, tension and good intentions.” There was probably no more damning critique to Tyner than “good intentions,” given his lifelong fixation on purity and immediacy of expression — but he also doesn’t seem much like the type to read the comments, as it were.

The 33-year-old entered New York’s Decca Recording Studios in January 1972 alongside three brand-new collaborators after over a year of recording dormancy. Sonny Fortune, who played soprano, alto and flute on Sahara, was a fellow Philly native who was almost exactly Tyner’s age and whose primary experience had been with Pharoah Sanders and Mongo Santamaria. Bassist Calvin Hill and drummer Alphonse Mouzon were both younger and far from established at the time; nevertheless, they took up not only the challenge of hanging with a legend like Tyner but of playing a slew of different percussion and reeds. The ensemble was booked to play at Black nationalist Brooklyn community and arts center The East that winter — it’s not hard to imagine that they might have performed some of the tunes there.

It opens with the kind of urgency one might expect after Tyner had spent so long ruminating outside of the studio. “Ebony Queen,” a tribute to his wife Aisha, is trademark Tyner in many ways, with its resounding, assertive open chords. By the back half of the tune, though, he’s venturing into the kind of unbridled dissonance and arhythmic improvisation he’d mostly skirted on previous outings (at least the ones that had been released). It’s bracing, and yet the underlying pulse keeps it within spitting distance of the kind of postbop he’d been making previously. “A Prayer For My Family” finds McCoy solo, all cascading runs and impossibly seamless improvisation that exists somewhere in the middle of jazz, non-Western music and 20th century classical. The flood of sound does, by the end, take on a meditative quality.

“Valley Of Life” is where Tyner really takes a leap, strumming his koto while Fortune plays a lyric flute melody over a wash of percussion. It’s a total rebuke of the kind of crescendo/decrescendo model of the jazz tune, the idea of building to an undeniable peak; instead it ebbs and flows, the collective improvisation hearkening every so slightly back to jazz’s origins. The rapidfire swing of “Rebirth” is even harsher in contrast, all sturm und drang and catharsis.

The release’s title track is a 23-and-a-half minute opus — the whole side of an album. It’s also where Tyner’s pan-African influence is made most obvious. Like his compatriots, Tyner takes up a slew of alternate instruments for the extended jam, playing wooden flutes, a thumb piano, and a kind of gourd percussion from India. The result is expressive and rich; unlike so many attempts to add in elements from unfamiliar musics, it never sounds forced. Perhaps, Tyner would likely argue, that’s because it’s not. It’s been part of his own personal musical identity all along.

“With McCoy, the music — it’s so-called jazz, but I consider it Black cultural mu­sic — gave me the opportunity to gel into a lot more rhythms, a lot of 6/4 and 6/8, which I wasn’t doing with Weather Report,” Mouzon told Down Beat when Sahara was selected as the album of the year in that magazine’s critics’ poll (though other outlets had panned it, Down Beat gave the project a five-star review). “The music is so intense: like in Africa. It’s really going back to the roots, which I needed, because playing with Weather Report was sort of draining. That was a Europeanish, rockish, Milesish kind of thing,” he added disdainfully.

The most interesting thing about the project is that though it would seem to have been the beginning of an artistic phase for Tyner, given the order in which the albums were released, it was actually the end of one. He refused to remain lodged in his pan-African musical interests, even though they clearly came so naturally to him, just as he resisted categorization as an activist even though he was articulating activist sentiment. Tyner was uninterested in being anything other than what he was at the exact moment he was alternately besieging and caressing the piano.

“McCoy has taste,” as Coltrane once put it. “He can take anything, no matter how weird, and make it sound beautiful. Beauty is exactly the word for McCoy’s playing, and it’s all of a piece, because he lives like that too.”

Natalie Weiner

Natalie Weiner is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Billboard, the New York Times, NPR and Rolling Stone among others.

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