A Fireside Chat with McCoy Tyner
“ The music matured and 'A Love Supreme' was definitely indicative of the place we had gone, the place we had reached through all of our playing, all of the experimentation, all through the years. ”
As the pianist for the legendary John Coltrane Quartet (my favorite band), McCoy Tyner has been an enigma to me. He is a legend. No one can take that away. And yet, his recent endeavors have been a lightning rod for criticism and the criticism has come, fast and furiously. I wondered if such faultfinding would hinder the man, who is arguably the most influential pianist of the last forty years. So I asked him, as well of his time with J.C. He answered candidly and here it is, unedited and in his own words.
Fred Jung: Let's start from the beginning.
McCoy Tyner: I really got excited about it. I really got involved and that became a priority in my life. Thank goodness for that because I really needed to express myself and music became the vehicle in which to do that. I studied very hard at the school, a lot of practicing everyday when I could because I didn't have a piano for about a year. When I was fourteen, my mother bought me a piano. My mother was a very supportive person. At fifteen, I formed a rhythm and blues band of junior high school buddies. They played in the orchestra, so it was like a side venture for them and it really gave me an opportunity to learn how to write for other instruments aside from the piano. Then, I got interested to some of the older musicians in my city and we had jam sessions all over, including my mother's beauty shop. That was the largest room in the house and we sort of lived behind and above and my piano could fit in the shop very, very conveniently and sometimes we would be in there jamming and women would be getting their hair done. It was an interesting time (laughing), very exciting, very interesting. And then after that, I met John Coltrane when I was seventeen years old in Philadelphia. He lived there and he came there as a young child and kind of grew up there. He was born in North Carolina, but he came to Philadelphia. I had a chance to play with him when I was seventeen. He was sort of on sabbatical. He was with Miles Davis in the early '50s and came to Philadelphia in the mid-'50s and then went back with Miles in the late '50s. He made so many marvelous recordings, recordings on his own for Prestige, so it was a long historical situation.
FJ: Most people associate you with your long tenure as a member of John Coltrane's landmark quartet with Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison. So much has been written about John Coltrane and that band, I would not be so audacious as to think I could contribute anything new to the discussion, yet you had an insider's viewpoint of the man and the myth.
MT: Well, as a human being, he was a really, really nice person. I don't mean that casually. He was like family to me. I was seventeen when I met him and I joined his band when I was twenty, and so he was literally like a big brother. I used to go over to his mom's house when he was in Philadelphia, during that period of staying home with his family, I would go and sit on his porch and we would talk about music and he came back to New York and finished up some recordings for Prestige. But as an individual, I mean, I couldn't think of a better person to work for and I learned so much from him that it was like going to a university, working with him. I couldn't wait to go to work at night, I mean, exploring different things and just unlimited experimentation and enjoyment. Conceptually, I think he was moving into an area, the whole band really was moving there, but John's spearheaded the whole thing because he was our leader and we were sort of playing off of each other and following him and he would listen to us and he'd get ideas and so we really worked as a unit, with Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison. It was a group effort. But we needed a good, strong leader and he was the guy who helped shape that music. Well, all of us helped shape that music, but he was the guy. It was really a fun experience. We did a lot and the band did a lot for, as well as John, as an individual, did a lot to open up conceptually, the music and the band, of course. Each individual did his part in terms of setting the tone for a new way of self-expression on the individual instruments that we had to play. It was all because of the whole combination of people and John's leadership and conceptualizing different things and writing certain songs. He was so open to everything that was going on around him. He told me that he was supplied by what was going on around him. We really communicated very, very well.
FJ: A Love Supreme is a favorite of mine, more than thirty-five years have past, what are your views of the radically innovative recording now?
MT: Yeah, it was very fresh, even today. It is funny, Fred, because we used to play the music and that was sort of a plateau that we reached, a level we had reached, so every place we went, every plateau we reached, it was used as a launching pad for something else or another idea that happened to come along. That would come along and we would develop that. So A Love Supreme was a culmination of a lot of things that we were doing from the year before ('63) to that time. The music matured and A Love Supreme was definitely indicative of the place we had gone, the place we had reached through all of our playing, all of the experimentation, all through the years. It was a thing where we didn't need music. We had a set of course where we could do literally what we wanted. That band was so in tune with each other that we could actually go different places without actually, there was very little verbal communication. Our music was the language.
FJ: Did you ever sense that Coltrane felt limitations?
MT: Well, his whole concept was no limitations and his quest that he took upon himself was to open everything up, just whatever you want, do it. And yet, there was still a feeling or a groove still going on, even though it was very free at times. We would experiment with time and no changes and no format. It was just, let's get together and play. We had played so well together over the years that we could do that. We could start off with one note and end up with a whole song, a whole series of events musically. It was really interesting because it was like total communication.
FJ: In 1967, you recorded an album for Blue Note called The Real McCoy. It features some of the best playing by Joe Henderson on record.
MT: Joe put up (laughing). I was a guest on some of his recordings and I must say that on The Real McCoy, Joe really put on a show, not that he didn't play good all the time, but that was a special thing. He was fabulous. The playing in that, Ron Carter and Elvin, yeah, Fred, you're right.
FJ: Your Blue Note years are unheralded and the vast majority of the recordings that you made, Tender Moments, Expansions, and Extensions are unavailable and out of print.
MT: Well, they have been doing it sort of by piece mail, putting them out. I think that if there are enough requests for them, I haven't actually spoken to them, but I will, the next time I speak to Bruce (Bruce Lundvall, President of Blue Note) or Michael (Michael Cuscuna, producer), I will be sure to mention that people would like to hear that music on CD. I don't talk to them that much, but I will mention that if I do.
FJ: For a period of time, you led a big band.
MT: It was scary (laughing). It was scary. It was so good, man. I realized that when music is on paper, it is a guideline, but it is not the band. What I learned from Duke Ellington, because he was the icon in terms of big band and in terms of having one of the greatest bands that ever existed. Of course, his persona was unbelievable. I know what he thought because I think he just wanted to write for his band and hear what he had written and experience that every night. That is why I say it was scary because to keep a big band together, you really, really have to, it's more than a notion. There is a lot of people you have to travel with and you have to know each individual. That is what I learned, that each guy in my band had his own individual talent and that certain songs that these guys play on raises all of that out. It's a lot of things, but it is a beautiful kind of scary. I haven't had a big band gig in a while. We traveled, we went to Europe and we did three tours in Europe. We played the Newport Festival and played here in New York, a couple times at the Blue Note and we did a lot of recording at the Blue Note. It was a lot of fun. We haven't done anything, but we have a gig, here at the Blue Note in May. So I have to put pencil to paper and get some new charts out. I'm looking forward to that.
FJ: You also have a Latin band.
MT: Yeah, we were in Europe. Actually, we were in Yugoslavia last year. I have got a story, Fred. We played Paris and we were flying to Belgrade because we had a concert to play and sitting across from me was United Nations Ambassador, Richard Holbrooke, but he was negotiating down in that area. It was funny. I told him that I said, "I'm playing in Yugoslavia, do you think it's safe?" He said, "Yeah, don't worry about it. All the action is twenty-four hours from you." That was really assuring (laughing). It was great and then when I looked at the television and saw all the stuff that was going on, I couldn't believe it. The band is very nice. It's just great. I like to put myself in different situations. We worked at Yoshi's out in Oakland for five years. It was an annual event. We're not doing it this year. There is something else going on.
FJ: What possessed you to do an album of Burt Bacharach tunes ( What the World Needs Now: The Music of Burt Bacharach )?
MT: Yeah, well, the thing is, Fred, I am the kind of person where I don't wait for the signal to do things. I was approached by Tommy LiPuma, who is a great producer and he did Natalie Cole's Unforgettable, but he was also President of Impulse! Records, which has a tremendous jazz roster. My first recording was on Impulse! and Coltrane's. Our history goes pretty far back. But anyway, I did two records for him. The Infinity record, I used Michael Brecker on that. He (LiPuma) told me, "Would you like to do an album with an orchestra?" And I said, "Yes, of course. What would you like to do?" He mentioned Burt, but he said that I could do something else and I had recorded a lot of Duke Ellington's music and Monk and he mentioned Burt and I said, "That sounds interesting," because I remember Burt and Dionne Warwick were doing things together. The only thing we have to do is find someone to arrange the songs and John Clayton, of course, did the orchestration. John came to New York. We sat down and we talked about it. We took "The Look of Love," which was something that I liked and "Alfie." Sonny Rollins had gotten a hit, I think in the '60s with "Alfie." We did "A House Is Not a Home," which was something I like anyhow. I really liked that song, even before I recorded it. We took what I call the best of Burt for me and recorded it. Some of his songs wouldn't have worked for me, but those songs did and Burt told me, he said, "I was wondering when you would get to do my tunes." He really liked it. He said, "Thanks a lot." He's a nice guy. But the thing is I don't do sequels. I did that because it was something different and I'll do that. Just like to get into voices. I did an album ( Looking Out ) in 1984 with Phyllis Hyman, Carlos Santana, Stanley Clarke, and Tower of Power horns. I do things. Now and then, I will do things and I'm not trying to trick anybody. I just can't be inhibited in certain areas. I just like to do different things.
FJ: Let's touch on your new release on the Telarc label, McCoy Tyner with Stanley Clarke and Al Foster.
MT: The new record on Telarc, it's Al Foster on drums and Stanley Clarke on bass, upright and electric. I really like the record a lot. I mean, these guys really rose to the occasion. Stanley is from my hometown of Philadelphia, so we've known each other for quite a while. And of course, Al is just amazing. He's unbelievable. He's so sensitive. So it was such a fun thing. We did a lot of variety on it. I really love it. I really love it a lot. I just keep trying to do things and I hope I am not misunderstood when I do things because I think the people that write about this music have to understand that. I really loved the orchestra record ( What the World Needs Now ). It was something that hadn't been done by that many people. I think that's why you put handcuffs on when you don't have to.
FJ: Because of the monumental innovations that you were a part of with Coltrane, the bar for McCoy Tyner is high.
MT: Yeah, yeah. You see, Fred, any dedicated artist, although everybody thinks differently, I think that if you get to the point where you have to do the same thing over and over again, you know, I play some of my songs that I had written years ago, but I try to do them, I do them differently because I feel differently about them now. It is like having a relationship with your children. They grow up and they become like adults. You have a different kind of relationship with them. I feel that way about my songs. I just think that it's important to take a chance to do things. To take chances because that way you will stay fresh as an artist. I think that is the whole idea, to be able to identify with what is going on around you and to see what's happening. It is like using electronics. I am not an electronic guy. I have a synthesizer here, but I use it to write on not practice, because I don't have a room for a nine-foot Steinway in my place. It has its place.
FJ: And the future?
MT: I think this summer I am going to Europe and taking maybe Al and Stanley. Stanley writes for movies so he might not be able to make it. That will probably be around June or July. I will be going right to Yoshi's and that gig is comprised of Billy Higgins, Bobby Hutcherson on vibes, Joe Lovano on saxophone, and Charnett Moffett on bass and myself. We did one week last year at Yoshi's and that was very, very well received and so we're going to do that again. I think Stanley and Al will be playing with me at Yoshi's. We will be debuting that music at Yoshi's.
Visit McCoy Tyner on the web at www.mccoytyner.com .