In late 1961, Impulse Records and McCoy Tyner were each young and getting started. The two came together that year: the label barely a year old with just ten albums in its catalog; the pianist from Philadelphia twenty-three, already a young veteran of various bands and recording situations.
“I had been doing some recording early on with different labels and different people,” says Tyner. “I did an album with Curtis Fuller. Then the record Meet the Jazztet [with trumpeter Art Farmer and saxophonist Benny Golson]. I was kind of glad [Impulse chief Bob] Thiele came to me and said, ‘Listen, your piano is a pretty accessible instrument.’ I don’t know if he said those exact words, but in essence that’s what he meant — ‘I think you ought to start your own recording career.’ I wouldn’t say it surprised me, but it got me excited.”
As a member of John Coltrane’s band, Tyner first witnessed how Impulse worked when Africa/Brass, Coltrane’s label debut, was released in mid-1961. “It was kind of informal [how] we found out that he had a new home — that he was going over to Impulse,” he recalls.
Within a year, Tyner was a primary part of a variety of sessions led by Coltrane, including a live recording project at the Village Vanguard, a ballads-focused project, and a 45-rpm release of an old English ballad Tyner had arranged for the band. “I wrote the arrangement on ‘Greensleeves,’ [but] they didn’t give me a credit; they gave it all to Eric [Dolphy] until I told them to correct that.”
Still, Tyner saw a contract with Impulse as a positive and practical move. “We definitely were welcomed there with open arms. John was there, and I said, ‘Why not?’” He immediately felt the same support and treatment his employer enjoyed.
“The contract was basically [for] two albums a year. If anything else needed to be recorded, that would be negotiable — we’d talk about it. After I signed with the label I met with the head of [sales for] ABC, Larry Newton. He was sitting there very casually. He said, ‘Listen, we’re proud to have you on the label. We’re going to work with you.’ I was welcomed by one of the head execs there at ABC; with that initial greeting I felt very comfortable.”
It was Thiele, according to Tyner, who was “spearheading the whole thing. I liked the way he dealt with musicians. It was very casual, not demanding.”
Thiele, in turn, used Impulse as a greenhouse to grow Tyner the recording artist. “When we started recording McCoy Tyner for Impulse, I think the first album [Inception] sold eight hundred,” Thiele recalled. “But we stayed with him for four years, and at the end . . . his initial orders [from retailers] were seventy-five hundred, ten thousand albums.”
Tyner was an inherent element in Coltrane’s group, which was fast developing its distinctive, enormously influential style. “A lot of things I was doing with John was — well, I wouldn’t say far out, but it was moving out. More of a spiritual, intellectual approach to the music.” But the pianist’s first album as a leader made it clear that he was his own man.
“What really motivated me in a lot of ways was that I didn’t want to do the same thing I was doing with the [Coltrane] quartet. I was recording on the label with John doing the modal thing [and] I loved doing things with John. It was definitely an integral part of my musical character. But I wanted to do something that was more indicative of me — more characteristic of things I wanted to do. That’s why I did standards, a lot of those songs — and the trio’s a bit different from the quartet.”
The trio on Inception featured support familiar to Tyner: Art Davis, one of Coltrane’s favorite bassists, and drummer Elvin Jones. The performances revealed the maturing, lyrical brilliance of the youthful improviser and composer. He chose a few ballads and contributed a number of originals, such as “Effendi,” which suggested his modal experience with Coltrane.
Tyner recorded his second album for Impulse, Reaching Fourth, in late 1962. Its title punned on the pianist’s penchant for voicings that leaned on fourths. He had found that this harmonic interval allowed a flexibility that worked well with Coltrane’s improvisations, and added a marked, modern edge to the music. On this album, Tyner again sought a balance of newer, often modal tunes, and older, more melodic material.
Over the next two years at Impulse, Tyner continued to make history with Coltrane, and added standout session support to Impulse headliners like vocalist Johnny Hartman, trombonist J.J. Johnson, drummer Art Blakey (Tyner contributed his own “Blues Back” to Blakey’s album A Jazz Message), and a Coltrane-spinoff band co-led by Elvin Jones and bassist Jimmy Garrison (to which he contributed “Oriental Flower”).
Tyner completed four more stellar albums as a leader for Impulse. Nights of Ballads & Blues was a ballad-driven collection of moody, up-late tunes by the likes of Monk, Ellington, and Henry Mancini. “Bob came up with that concept,” the pianist recalls. It included stellar performances of “Star Eyes” and Tyner’s own “Groove Waltz.”
Live at Newport — Tyner’s first live recording as a leader — featured a giddy, impromptu, riff-driven “Newport Romp,” with Clark Terry on trumpet, Charlie Mariano on alto saxophone, Bob Cranshaw on bass, and Mickey Roker on drums. Today and Tomorrow was also spurred by an unusual lineup, including Sun Ra’s tenor saxophonist John Gilmore, on tracks like Tyner’s “Three Flowers.”
Tyner’s final Impulse album was McCoy Tyner Plays Ellington, a trio-plus-percussion session that took place the same week in December 1964 as Coltrane’s historic A Love Supreme dates. The concept for Tyner’s album was again suggested by Thiele. “He’s the one that came up with that: Why don’t I do something with Duke Ellington’s music? He gave me some of Duke’s sheet music I had never heard of. I had some of my own ideas of some of the things that Duke had written, so it worked out well.”
As 1964 ran out, so did Tyner’s contract with Impulse. He would not return to the studio under his own name until 1967, for Blue Note. “There was no disillusionment,” Tyner says. “It just ran its course.” Collectively, his recordings for Impulse suggest an abiding affection for well-known standards and melodies of his own making, to which he would return after departing Coltrane’s employ in late 1965.
Significantly, Tyner’s Impulse contract stands as the first example of Coltrane serving as a de facto talent scout for the label, a guiding role he would take on with growing influence as time went by.
“He was glad that I signed [with Impulse],” Tyner says today. “As a matter of fact, he came over to my house when I would do a recording to look over stuff, because we didn’t live far from each other in Queens. He sort of watched my development. He was my teacher. He really was.”