There are many ways to understand the passage of time—it’s not just one thing after the next, the pinhead of the present gnarling the flesh of your foot as you try, impossibly, to balance upon it. Not just peering through the mist of memory. Not just cutting through the ice ahead. Time moves back and forth, slows down, speeds up, it eddies—it does a lot of eddying. It concentrates itself in one moment and becomes diffuse and vague in another. We’re always in the present, though we can never quite get there, nor can we leave. All of this is what the music of McCoy Tyner, who died on Friday at the age of eighty-one, teaches, though as soon as one tries to paraphrase music in anything other than other music, it’s robbed of some of its magic and much of its meaning.
Tyner was one of the defining musicians of the jazz period that began in the early sixties and which, I’d argue, we’re still in: pure art music that renews its inspiration in the the last hundred-plus years of pop music. As the pianist anchoring the classic John Coltrane quartet, Tyner’s instantly recognizable style—pendular, percussive, full of melodic flights and returns—created, hand in hand with drummer Elvin Jones, the landscapes across which Coltrane’s solos famously and fathomlessly ranged.
I’ve been gratefully lost for years somewhere between the interminable vamp of the 1961 studio recording of Coltrane’s rendition of “My Favorite Things” and the pounding sinews of Tyner’s 1976 solo track “Fly with the Wind.” The latter isn’t fusion, isn’t exactly jazz, but is all Tyner: intellect, melody, and abandon. Tyner’s art has guided my imagination, and now that he’s gone, and because the meaning of music is so slippery, I want to take a moment to say why. Read More