McCoy Tyner: Ballads & Blues

Pianist McCoy Tyner is best known for being a member of the John Coltrane Quartet beginning in 1960. During those years, Tyner re-invented the piano as a highly percussive, stirring instrument that churned the waters for Coltrane’s abstraction and expanded spiritual solos. For some strange reason, in late 1962 and the first half of 1963, Tyner was asked by producer Bob Thiele to record more straightforward jazz albums as a leader. These albums included Reaching Fourth, Today and Tomorrow,and McCoy Tyner Plays Duke Ellington. But the finest of these straightforward piano recordings was Nights of Ballads & Blues.

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Perhaps Thiele overheard Tyner playing standards in the studio one day and decided to record him. Or perhaps he felt that Impulse would be best served if Tyner could play two roles for the label—agent provocateur for Coltrane and elegant trio leader for the older, more relaxed set. Recorded in March 1963, Nights of Ballads & Blues featured Tyner with bassist Steve Davis and drummer Lex Humphries. They were perfectly matched.

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Tyner’s playing is exciting and exceptional on all of the tracks: Satin Doll, We’ll Be Together Again, ‘Round Midnight, For Heaven’s Sake, Star Eyes, Blue Monk, Groove Waltz and Days of Wine and Roses. On the album, he exhibits a reserved elegance and tenderness that reveals the other side of his personality—a lover of melody and standards. In this regard, there are traces of Oscar Peterson in his playing. Perhaps Thiele was using Tyner to take a bite out of Peterson’s vast and successful early-’60s share of the jazz market.

But Tyner’s passion for modal jazz and the avant-garde seeps through in fascinating places, addition a modern flavor to many of the songs. Unfortunately, we learn little about Thiele’s motive or Tyner’s decision to record the album from the unsigned liner notes. What is revealing, however, are Coltrane’s impressions:

“Tenor saxophonist John Coltrane has pinned down the characteristics that have given Tyner this ability to reach an ever-widening public—’melodic inventiveness’ and ‘clarity of ideas.’ Coltrane has also pointed out the basic reason Tyner is and has been important to the world of avant-garde jazz: ‘He gets a personal sound from his instrument; and because of the clusters he uses and the way he voices them, that sound is brighter than what would normally be expected from most of the chord patterns he plays.’ “


Tyner’s avant-garde work is indeed exceptional. The Real McCoy(1967) is a perfect example that more robustly illustrate Coltrane’s points above. But for those less familiar with Tyner, Nights of Ballads & Blues is a fine entry point to the magnificent pianist.

JazzWax tracks: You’ll find McCoy Tyner’s Nights of Ballads &Blues here.

The album also is available at Spotify.

JazzWax clip: Here’s Tyner playing an absolutely exceptional version of Star Eyes. Dig his modal touches that season the rendition…

And here’s ‘Round Midnight