In 1959, Tyner joined trumpeter Art Farmer and saxophonist Benny Golson in a group they called The Jazztet; he appeared on its first album, released the following year. That same year, 1960, Tyner played on Coltrane's album My Favorite Things; his tolling, meditative chords on the title track, a popular song borrowed from the hit Broadway musical The Sound of Music, were a key part of its allure.
The classic John Coltrane Quartet — with Tyner, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums — formally coalesced in 1962. For the next several years it created at a prodigious pace, recording landmark albums like Crescent and A Love Supreme, and setting a fearsome bar for intensity on the bandstand. Recordings like Live at Birdland have been prized by generations of musicians and fans; in 2005 another live document, Live at the Half Note: One Down, One Up, left another major impression, 40 years after its recording date.
Tyner stayed with Coltrane until soon after that recording, as the music grew more cacophonous, rhythmically abstract and untethered from root tonality. His piano chair was passed on to Alice Coltrane, who quickly made it her own.
"I was so immersed in the music when I was with John," Tyner told me in 1997. "The influence was so great, and the roles we all played in that group were so powerful; you couldn't divorce yourself from it just because you weren't physically there. For a while there, all the horn players that were with me wanted to sound like John. So I deliberately started using alto sax instead of tenor, and other instruments, because I wanted to kind of try something different."
But the intrepid tone and earnest spiritualism in Coltrane's music carried over into Tyner's — especially during a feverish stretch in the 1970s, on a series of searching, Afrocentric albums like Extensions and Sahara. The critic Gary Giddins, reflecting on the 1970s in The Village Voice, once pegged Tyner "the most influential pianist of the decade," an assessment that could credibly be extended outside that frame.
Tyner was a 2002 NEA Jazz Master, and a five-time Grammy winner — most recently in 2004 for his album Illuminations, featuring a band with trumpeter Terence Blanchard, alto saxophonist Gary Bartz, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Lewis Nash. He worked extensively in a trio format; one longtime working band had Avery Sharpe on bass and Aaron Scott on drums.
The legacy of Tyner's pianism can be heard far and wide, in the music of everyone from salsa legend Eddie Palmieri to Late Show bandleader Jon Batiste. His innovations in harmony, with their intimations of transcendence, form a standard proudly upheld by contemporary pianists like Nduduzo Makhathini, whose forthcoming Blue Note debut bears the influence unmistakably.
"I feel very honored, actually," Tyner told me about the legions of pianists who have emulated his style. "I really do, because I think that if I could make a statement that makes a difference, and the influence could be preserved through the generations to come, that means that my stay here on earth has a meaning."
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