It is difficult to overstate the enormousness of the sound McCoy Tyner brings forth from a piano. It's not so much the volume -- although it's plenty loud -- as the capacious depth of the rumbling that makes Tyner's style so distinctive and attention-grabbing. On top of thunderous block chords he adds rich layers of melodic punctuation, garlands of harmony and tag-along rhythms. The energy is tumultuous, yet his command is self-evident and absolute.
He minted those plangent pyrotechnics as a member of John Coltrane's seminal quartet more than 45 years ago. Coltrane was a spiritual seeker who wanted to make a visceral musical connection with both his fans and his deity. Tyner, who played with a cathedral-like grandeur, was the ideal foil. Tyner not only threw up the sonic scaffolding that supported Coltrane's saxophone ascents, but carried on with a near-equal density and thematic rigor when it was his turn to solo.
That's why Tyner wasn't obscured in the shadow cast by Coltrane's exalted status. While Trane was clearly a mentor, Tyner had developed most of his distinctive sound by the time he joined the group in his early 20s.
"The one condition I put on myself was that I didn't want to sound like anybody else," Tyner, who brings his own quartet to Orchestra Hall on Thursday, said by phone from his New York home last week. "Everyone in the neighborhood felt that way."
That's easier said than done when one of the guys in that Philadelphia neighborhood was Bud Powell, probably the most influential bebop pianist in jazz at the time. Tyner balanced the allure of Powell's example with intensive individual practice. "Every day," he says simply. "My mother was a beautician and she bought a piano and set it up for me right in the beauty shop. And before that I would alternate going between three clients of hers who owned pianos."
Eventually, he developed a style that incorporated Powell's knotty phrases and left-handed comping with the prodigious technique of Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson, but with more percussion and less glissando in his touch. Decades later, whether it is a song from the '60s or the '00s, his work remains immediately recognizable.
Gravatt's 'third tour of duty'
Tyner occupies such a distinctive place in the jazz pantheon that he can pretty much play with whomever he wants. Thursday he will showcase an intimate crew that may be less illustrious than some groups he has assembled, but is familiar with Tyner's work and distinguished in its own right. Saxophonist Gary Bartz and drummer Eric Kamau Gravatt have played on and off with Tyner since the late '60s. Bassist Gerald Cannon, the young 'un in the band, played with late Coltrane drummer Elvin Jones before spending seven years with trumpeter Roy Hargrove.
Gravatt, a resident of Minneapolis for more than 30 years, said he was introduced to the city while touring with Tyner: "It was 1968. We drove out here and played Bobby Jackson's Café Extraordinaire, which used to be near the corner of Lake and Nicollet."
The drummer eventually left Tyner to play in Weather Report. A native Philadelphian like Tyner, he moved to Minneapolis "before crack hit here, to get away from the crime where I was living." He retired from national touring to raise a family, working for the Minnesota Department of Corrections and doing intermittent local performances with his ensemble, Source Code.
As someone who used to lurk around Philadelphia clubs as a teenager, listening to the Coltrane quartet, he obviously relishes the way things have come full circle in his own career, to where he's back playing what he calls "grown folks' music."
"Everybody listens to each other in this quartet," he enthused. "The slightest innuendo can become vast territory for a thematic exposition. McCoy gives us a lot of latitude."
Tyner responds in kind: "I love these guys. They're veterans who know my music. With them I can pick what I want to play as we go along. You want to keep it spontaneous when you can."
Turning 70 in December doesn't seem to have reduced Tyner's power or speed, but his grace and eloquence on ballads have become more acute and judicious over time. "If you love what you are doing, you're going to put the dedication, the sweat and the tears in and it is going to get better. So we are getting better," he said simply.
Gravatt, who frequently refers to Tyner as "Teacher," said, "Substance shows over shadow. Every keyboard player has to pass McCoy Tyner School to make it through. He can still rip it up when he wants to, playing a piece in a tempo where nobody gets comfortable.
"I couldn't really say how he does it; this is my third tour of duty with Teacher and I'm still amazed. But I will say it has been big fun."