When we talk about rock, we talk about bands: Zeppelin, the Who, the Stones. But when we talk about jazz, we tend to talk about individuals: Miles, Monk, Coltrane. On some level, that makes sense: If the song is the primary mode of rock expression, the solo is generally the way you make your mark in jazz. Whether you’re considering Coleman Hawkins, Louis Armstrong, Freddie Hubbard, or the colossal, now-retired Sonny Rollins, it was when they stepped out front and said their piece that they truly embodied their legendary status.
But on another level, jazz is the ultimate band music. Throughout the music’s history, plenty of magic has been made by ad hoc groups, ensembles that came together only for a night or two. But the true seismic shifts in the music have all come about through the chemistry of an established group, a collection of players working night after night toward some kind of shared telepathy. It’s what McCoy Tyner — who died Friday at 81, and who was the last living member of one of the greatest bands of the 20th century in any genre, John Coltrane’s so-called classic quartet — meant when he told jazz journalist Ted Panken in 2003 that he, Coltrane, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Elvin Jones “knew each other’s musical vocabulary.” And it’s what jazz critic Ben Ratliff meant when he ended Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, his definitive 2007 study of the saxophonist’s musical journey, with the statement that “The truth of jazz is in its bands.”