Conventional wisdom

Jazz pianist McCoy Tyner strikes a chord with Davis audiences

McCoy Tyner knows what time it is.

McCoy Tyner knows what time it is.

8 p.m. Wednesday; $29-$39 for adults, and $14.50-$19.50 for students and children. Mondavi Center at UC Davis, (530) 754-2787,

McCoy Tyner isn’t a legend; he is a fact. Some confusion on this matter is only natural and has arisen from Tyner’s rare stature among jazz musicians. It is one thing to say his style has been influential. It’s quite another to hear him perform live, as this Wednesday’s Mondavi Center engagement allows, and have half your CD collection mooted by the sudden realization that so much of the current jazz-piano syntax was his to begin with. It’s like hearing a voice in person that you’ve only known over the phone, in translation.

What’s more, the arc of Tyner’s career has been unimpeded—a steady, measured thrust from young-upstart sideman to mature, inventive frontman all the way through to luminary elder statesman. True, there was a moment late in the 1960s, even after his tenure as a member of saxophonist John Coltrane’s revelatory quartet, when Tyner made ends meet by driving a New York City taxi. But by and large, the music gig has been good to him. Now Tyner, who will be 67 in December, is the only player from that illustrious group still alive, and you can see why people call his vitality legendary.

“It’s nice to know you’re relevant to people,” Tyner said in a recent phone interview from his home in New York. “It’s nice to know that you’ve done something with your art.” Yes, there is also a trace of humility. In fact, the case has been argued, though certainly not by Tyner, that during their years together it was he who made Coltrane sound so good, by making him feel so comfortable. That may be litigiously simplistic, but it’s not entirely untrue.

“I think that I’ve learned more from playing a supportive role,” Tyner continued. “I can sort of make something happen, make it come to life. Being supportive is one of the best things you can do. John mentioned something years ago: He played according to what was around him, what was going on. I understand that. It takes a good, supportive person to be a leader.”

Whether he’s a bandleader or part of a rhythm section, Tyner’s style is extroverted and tends to remind many listeners that the piano is a percussion instrument; his fingers hit the keys like mallets, with manic Whack-A-Mole eagerness—and startlingly melodious results. As Coltrane once observed, “McCoy has taste. He can take anything, no matter how weird, and make it sound beautiful.”

Having explored the musical legacies of Africa, East Asia and Latin America, in ensembles of various shapes and sizes, Tyner has managed not to submerge himself in the quicksands of fusion or free jazz, nor to go cold on regurgitated standards. He sometimes plays conventional stuff, but they are his conventions.

“People can hear if you’re not confident,” he said. “It’s not arrogance; it’s confidence. There’s a difference. Sometimes, playing in a jazz context allows you to learn more about yourself. It opens the door to self-realization. It takes a certain amount of courage to be who you are. And if you have any fears, this kind of eradicates them. That’s what the whole thing’s about, really. Letting it happen.”

Bassist Charnett Moffett and drummer Eric Kamau Gravatt will join Tyner for Wednesday’s performance. A native Philadelphian, Tyner described Northern Californians as “a great audience, very receptive” and lauded the “air of freedom of expression” that blows through this place.

“Sometimes they ask me to speak to students prior to the performance. I don’t try to teach per se, but I leave the door open for questions and see if I can answer them,” he said. “I think they sort of realize that, in order to carry their lives forward, they have to not be afraid to take steps to challenge themselves. What we all sometimes have to do is beat those doubts into submission. You come out better.”

Like his playing, Tyner’s conversation roams, but purposefully. “You can be very simple in your approach,” he added. “Simplicity is a very, very important element. And, you know, you can verbalize up to a certain point, but then again, it’s all in the doing.” And so the legend continues.