AAJ: Your piano style is so orchestral a good deal of the framework is there already.
MT: Yeah he tapped into that and he did a very good job on the arrangements. But the guys in the band tell me they know when I write something and arrange it. They say they can tell the difference, but it's all good.
AAJ: You've recorded with violinists Stephan Grappelli and John Blake in the past, as well as with string sections on a few occasions. Do you have any plans to perform and/or record with a 'classical' orchestra in the future?
MT: Well when I was with Blue Note, Verve-Polygram came up with the idea that I do something with an orchestra. John Clayton did the arrangements. So what I did ' I did Burt Bacharach ' some of it was Burt Bacharach ' not all of it. What we did, john and I ' we changed some of the structures, the chordal structures, without losing the identity of the song. Like it was still 'Alfie' or 'A House Is Not A Home,' which is one of the nicest songs Burt had written over the years, that I liked before I even met Burt . . . It's a beautiful tune. Burt I think liked jazz when he was coming up. He's studied jazz musicians, but I don't think he ever considered himself a jazz musician. He said that when he found out ' Tommy LiPuma told him ' (I had the chance the chance to some other composers, Tommy gave me some choices, but I chose Burt) ' he said 'I wonder what this guy is going to do to my songs (laughs). I said 'Burt, you know I wouldn't destroy your music, man.' He was really thrilled and John did some wonderful charts.
AAJ: Which, if any, classical composers did you study in your early years? Which do you still enjoy listening to?
MT: Well, actually Stravinsky. I liked his writing. In the jazz idiom, Duke Ellington and Oliver Nelson. I met Quincy (Jones) after I came to New York. When I was a kid there were some other composers. Debussy. I liked some of his stuff. I also studied. I had a beginner teacher who taught me and some of the kids in the neighborhood beginner piano. My mother gave me a choice. She said, 'Would you like to take singing lessons or piano.' I'm glad I chose piano. Could you imagine me singing (laughs)? Everybody would leave. I sang in a choir, but I had 29 other people. I had my notes, so I didn't stick out like a sore thumb. I had a choir teacher who was Jimmy Smith's first wife. She was my junior high school choir teacher ' she loved music . . . But, I chose piano, luckily that I did. I couldn't wait to get home and practice, but the guy who taught me then, he said, 'I've taken you as far as I can go,' because he was a beginner teacher. Then I got an Italian teacher, Mr. (?) and he took me through Bach and Beethoven. Chopin. The book full of classical composers and it was nice, because what it does ' it doesn't teach you to create, but what it does, it shows you the possibilities of what you can do with the instrument. Of course I practiced everyday after school. I couldn't wait to get home. I didn't have a piano for about one year. I started when I was thirteen. My mother didn't buy me a piano until I was fourteen. My father said, 'Piano! How do you spell it.' (laughs). He wanted me to get a real job. I said, 'Hey, I'm a teenager what do you want from me.' But when he came to see me in the club he said, 'That's my son up there.'
I like Rubenstein. Arthur Rubenstein. I like the way he plays the instrument. He's a powerful little guy. He's sensitive and he has amazing ability on the instrument ' agility dexterity I should say ' but, he can be powerful. I saw him bouncin'. . . I know that feeling, when you're trying to get that power.
AAJ: Who are some of your favorite pianists performing today?
MT: I've always like Mulgrew Miller. And John Hicks. The guy from Texas, young guy. (Cedar Walton?) There's a lot of guys out there playing. I just don't go out that much anymore.
AAJ: How do you feel about being the most imitated pianist in jazz?
MT: I wish I had a dollar . . . (laughs). Well, I appreciate that. I'm glad I was able to contribute something to the artform. But, I learned that from listening to Bud and Monk. And Art Tatum. They all sounded different, but they were all amazing. What they did was amazing. You could identify them by the sound of the instrument. The sound, the approach. So I think that that's a good indication. And I used to like Bud and play a little like him. And Monk. They used to call me Bud-Monk when I was coming up, but I knew that I could never be them. So what it showed me was to be yourself. 'Let yourself come through,' that's what I tell the young guys.
AAJ: Did you consciously set out to develop a unique style?
MT: Yeah, I think I just ' when I say consciously ' I think it was inside. I think your sound is inside you. that's what I tell younger guys. You really can't force it. If it's not there what are you going to do.
AAJ: You're left handed. Do you think effected the development of your style?
MT: Yeah, I'm lefty, so don't mess with me, man. I got that left hook and uppercut (laughs). That could have been. One thing I did kind of say. Our mind is very unique. One side of your mind operates one side of your body and the other side of the mind operates the other side of the body. So, why not think of each hand as a mind? So that's why.
For me, jazz is passion, intelligence, joy, beauty, elegance, cohesiveness, sharing, exploration, excitement, honesty, soulfulness and dynamics. I heard and saw those qualities the first time I watched: a drum battle between Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, The Modern Jazz Quartet, The Count Basie Orchestra; listening to the record albums “Focus” (Stan Getz), “Blowin’ The Blues Away” (Horace Silver), “Round About Midnight” (Miles Davis), and watching the Tonight Show Orchestra on TV, as a kid
For me, jazz is passion, intelligence, joy, beauty, elegance, cohesiveness, sharing, exploration, excitement, honesty, soulfulness and dynamics. I heard and saw those qualities the first time I watched: a drum battle between Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, The Modern Jazz Quartet, The Count Basie Orchestra; listening to the record albums “Focus” (Stan Getz), “Blowin’ The Blues Away” (Horace Silver), “Round About Midnight” (Miles Davis), and watching the Tonight Show Orchestra on TV, as a kid. All those moments left indelible marks on me, all contributing to the musician I am today. I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.