His full name is Alfred McCoy Tyner, he was born in 1938, he is one of the greatest pianists that any American century has produced. He began formal training at the age of 13, and his first hero was his neighbor, Bud Powell, who, along with Thelonious Monk (Tyner's second hero), helped determine the direction that the piano would take through the daunting terrain of modern jazz. Philadelphia, the city that shaped Tyner's early development, is where he first met and befriended, in his late teens, the great (no, the god) John Coltrane. By 21, Tyner was a member of Coltrane's quartet.

The solo Tyner provided for Coltrane's over-interpretation of "My Favorite Things" (1961) is startling. How could someone so young (23 at the time), whose formal experience of the piano had just reached the decade mark, bring out of this very difficult instrument emotions that very few artists are lucky enough to articulate near the end of a long life. The solo said "autumn in a big city," "falling leaves in a central park," "short and early dusks," "those shimmering stars," and "my lover's grey and brown sweater"—all of these ephemeral things were communicated with impeccable ease. Under his fingers, the wild piano was tamed and seemed to obey the exact course of his musical thoughts. The solo officially announced the arrival of a new genius to the already genius-packed world of post–World War II jazz.

During the first half of the '60s, the John Coltrane Quartet (bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones completing the band) was to produce a series of recordings whose level of energy and creativity has yet to be matched by any other quartet. And the peak of this high period is A Love Supreme, the greatest record ever cut. Unlike most artists who live to be old, Tyner (now in the second half of his 60s) still recognizes the record as his most significant contribution. "A Love Supreme," he stated in an interview with the newsletter Jerry Jazz Musician, "was a pinnacle, where we had reached a certain point, a high point in the band in terms of communication, spiritual feelings between us... We loved playing together, and music came first." Europe has Ulysses, Japan has Throne of Blood, black America has A Love Supreme.

After Tyner left Coltrane's quartet in the mid '60s, he embarked on a solo career that has produced way too many great recordings. Opening his body of work is like opening an unabridged dictionary. Everything is in there: solo recordings; performances with trios, combos, and orchestras; experiments with Latin, African, and Asian rhythms. And through it all, Tyner, who is the last living member of the classic quartet (Elvin Jones died two years ago), has not lost the substance of his approach, which has been defined by a sense of adventure. Tyner's playing goes outward, percussively covering wider and wider areas of sonic space, making new discoveries along the way, and arriving, often after great turbulence, at places of peace. If Bill Evans is the jazz master of introspection, Tyner is the jazz master of exploration.

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What Tyner and his vanishing generation of jazz musicians represent is black greatness. As much as I love hiphop, in its 30-year history very few of its rappers and producers have aspired to greatness—the condition of being better (or more) than human. The final goal for rap has always been reality ("it's the real shit/nothing but the real shit"), which is why, as an art form, it is not only lower than jazz but also lower than Detroit techno.

An explanation for techno's higher artistic worth deserves another article; as for modern jazz, the source of its greatness is this: Black artists of the civil rights era were challenged by the realties of having a less than human status in society. To counter institutionalized disfranchisement and the systematic characterization of blacks as childish, primitive, simple-minded, and a general burden to Western civilization, artists like McCoy Tyner produced art that made their humanity incontestable. In fact, A Love Supreme, Impressions, Johnny Coltrane & Johnny Hartman, The Complete Africa/Brass, The Real McCoy (and on and on) not only showed that blacks had intensely deep feelings and explosive intellectual imaginations, but they had the artistic capacity to become superhumans—giants who walked the earth. To see McCoy Tyner perform is to watch and hear the twilight of the gods.

charles@thestranger.com

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