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Coltrane connection continues to illuminate Tyner's career

McCoy Tyner has been a dominant and unmistakable voice among jazz pianists for so long that sometimes he's taken for granted. That wasn't the case in February, though, when Tyner's most recent CD, ''Illuminations," won a Grammy for best jazz instrumental album.

Tyner, 66, will be performing music from ''Illuminations" at the Regattabar next week, when he rolls into town for a three-night stand. Among those with him will be Ravi Coltrane, the tenor saxophonist son of Tyner's onetime boss and mentor, John Coltrane.

''I look at him and say, 'Oh, my God, he looks like his father,' " Tyner says by phone from his New York City home. ''It's kind of scary. Not only the shape of his face, but his facial expressions are a lot like Coltrane's, like John's. It's amazing."

Tyner was 21 when the elder Coltrane hired him in 1960 for what became Coltrane's great quartet with Elvin Jones on drums and Jimmy Garrison on bass. At least three of the quartet's recordings belong in any remotely serious jazz buff's collection, and Tyner has stories about each of them.

''My Favorite Things," for instance, was the first record Tyner made with Coltrane. Tyner was aware of Julie Andrews's ''Sound of Music" version of the title cut but never figured on playing it himself until Coltrane came by one day and told him otherwise.

''John said, 'Look, I'd like to play this,' " Tyner recalls. ''And I said, 'That?'

''He came to my house and said, 'I'm going to play like a vamp.' You know, going from major to minor, minor back to major, whatever -- alternating back and forth, the vamp style. He kind of gave me an idea of what he was talking about, and that was it. But that was funny, because I never thought we'd record 'My Favorite Things.' But I'm glad we did."

A few years later, Coltrane got the quartet together with vocalist Johnny Hartman for what became one of the finest jazz vocal albums of all time, ''John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman."

''Oh, that was great," says Tyner, whose playing behind Hartman was beautiful and appropriately subdued. ''I had never recorded with a singer on that level, and that was very nice. We went to Birdland. John got permission to use the club, and we went in there and just ran over some songs, had some sheet music, whatever. Johnny Hartman and John knew each other."

Then there was ''A Love Supreme," for many the apotheosis of the Coltrane quartet's art. Tyner says the album's deep spirituality came about because the group was so close-knit, not from any overt talk of religion or politics from the leader.

''I mean, from my perspective," Tyner says, ''it was about music. We had people writing books about revolution and music. Nah. They thought they were authorities on that music. They weren't. And I think they missed the motivation. It was spiritual -- John's father was a minister, his mother played piano in church, so he was surrounded by that."

Tyner left Coltrane to lead his own groups full time a couple of years after recording ''A Love Supreme," his piano style by then fully formed and among jazz's most recognizable. He has recorded dozens of splendid albums since (the Grammy for ''Illuminations" was Tyner's fifth), keeping things fresh largely through changes in personnel. He has led trios and big bands and assorted sizes in between, and always manages to fill his groups with first-rate sidemen -- a task he says has grown increasingly difficult.

''Nowadays, we're in a 'I want my own band' period," Tyner says. ''If you've got some good ideas, you say, 'Well, I want my own band.' I grew up at a time where I was happy and honored to stay with John [Coltrane], because there was always something to learn. But nowadays, a lot of guys think they know it all. 'Well, what do you have to teach me, buddy?' It's very funny, because I never had that attitude. I always kept my mind open."

One sideman who's kept returning to Tyner's employ, despite being a leader in his own right, is alto saxophonist Gary Bartz. Bartz is the only sideman from ''Illuminations" who'll be with Tyner in Cambridge next week, but his work with the pianist dates back to the late '60s and early '70s , on classic albums such as ''Expansions," ''Extensions," and ''Sama Layuca."

Bartz has played with Tyner often enough over the years to have noticed Tyner's own style evolving: pulling back a bit on the percussiveness of his left hand and becoming, for the most part, quieter and more lyrical.

''It's definitely changed over the years," Bartz says. ''I would say maybe he's a little more mellow, because as you grow you mellow out a little bit. But he can be as percussive as always. When he needs that, it's there. But he's definitely had a growth period. Another one, I should say."

Which, for Tyner, is what it's all about.

''Because I'm a vintage player," Tyner says, ''doesn't mean that I have to stop creating."

McCoy Tyner will perform Wednesday through Friday at the Regattabar, with sets starting at 7:30 and 10 p.m. $35. ($39 on Friday.) Call 617-395-7757 or visit

Cape Cod fest
The second annual Cape Cod Jazz Festival will fill the Wequassett Inn in Chatham with the sound of music Tuesday and Wednesday nights throughout July and August. Highlights will include the Jerry Bergonzi Quartet (Aug. 3), Mose Allison (Aug. 16), pianist Kenny Werner (Aug. 24), and a musical tribute to James Williams (Aug. 31). All of the shows are free. For information, call the inn at 800-225-7125 or visit

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