TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Jazz pianist McCoy Tyner died last Friday at age 81. Tyner led his own groups across five decades. But he was ever associated with John Coltrane, whose quartet Tyner played in. That's where jazz critic Kevin Whitehead begins in his appreciation of a pianist who invented a whole style.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE'S "MY FAVORITE THINGS")
KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Pianist McCoy Tyner made his reputation with John Coltrane in more ways than one. Joining Coltrane's quartet put the 21-year-old Philadelphian in the jazz public's eye. But that quartet is also where Tyner developed his inimitable style. Coltrane's lightning stroke saxophone solos might imply a fast sequence of changing chords. Rather than trying to match him chord by chord, the pianist created an unconfining sonic space Coltrane could improvise within. Tyner's pushy, booming chords were so wide open, anything Coltrane played on top would fit.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE'S "A LOVE SUPREME, PART II-RESOLUTION")
WHITEHEAD: McCoy Tyner's own solos followed a similar logic. He plays thundering, ambiguous chords under fast, right-hand melodies often based on five-note scales, a marker in jazz of African roots. His sound was heavy, but buoyant, billowing like blue smoke. His piano could toll like church bells. And he could really move, too.
(SOUNDBITE OF MCCOY TYNER'S "EBONY QUEEN")
WHITEHEAD: Tyner's style so perfectly fit the stretched-out, modal jazz Coltrane popularized, other pianists quickly latched on. To my ears, this made McCoy Tyner the most influential jazz pianist for decades. You could hear echoes of his eruptive sound from, say, John Hicks in the 1960s...
(SOUNDBITE OF BOOKER ERVIN'S "FRANESS")
WHITEHEAD: ...And Ronnie Matthews in the '70s...
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WHITEHEAD: ...And Mulgrew Miller in the 1980s...
(SOUNDBITE OF WOODY SHAW'S "GAME")
WHITEHEAD: ...And Harold Mabern in 2017...
(SOUNDBITE OF HAROLD MABERN'S "INNER GLIMPSE")
WHITEHEAD: These and a zillion more pianists broadcast McCoy Tyner's influence. But it took him a while to find his footing as a leader. That career took off in the 1970s when he played swirly, sprawling music reminiscent of his last period with Coltrane. Tyner came into his own more in the '80s when he started playing in a trio and founded a big band. He likened that orchestra to a magnified piano - the same billowing sound with more punch and color.
(SOUNDBITE OF MCCOY TYNER BIG BAND'S "UPTOWN (LIVE AT THE BLUE NOTE)")
WHITEHEAD: Tyner became an NEA Jazz Master in 2002. And in his last active years, he got tapped to record with other stars, including, among others, vibist Bobby Hutcherson, saxophonist Joe Lovano, banjo player Bela Fleck and trumpeter Terence Blanchard.
(SOUNDBITE OF MCCOY TYNER'S "SOULSTICE")
WHITEHEAD: McCoy Tyner, fingers flying in 2003. His last album was recorded in 2007. Tyner played gigs for a while after that but quietly withdrew in recent years, living at home in New Jersey. He didn't like listening to his records, he once said. In a way, he didn't need to. His sound came back at him from all over. But if you want to hear how it's done in its purest form, you want to go to the source, to the actual McCoy.
(SOUNDBITE OF MCCOY TYNER'S "MY FAVORITE THINGS")
GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and TONEAudio and is the author of "Why Jazz?" Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be New York Times reporter Ben Hubbard, the author of the new book "MBS," about Saudi Arabia's young, enigmatic leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He ended a ban on women driving and says he'll modernize the country. But he's cracked down on internal dissidents. His agents planned and executed the grisly murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. And over the weekend, he slashed Saudi export oil prices, starting a price war that contributed to the collapse of financial markets. I hope you'll join us. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.