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AAJ: You continue to mine the classic jazz repertory and the Great American Songbook. What is it in a particular standard that makes you choose it to improvise upon and record?
MT: I like some of them, not all of them. Some have a good structure, that means you can utilize them and maybe make some substitutions for certain chords. And have a strong melody, a melody that sticks with you. And it's personal, too. Why a guy likes a particular song. There's no real formula to that, except that he likes it. It means it touches you.
AAJ: Did you work as an accompanist for singers when you were coming up?
MT: Some. Ernestine Anderson, not Ernestine Anderson, yeah Ernestine Anderson, I worked with her for a while, but only when she would come to Philly. A Steve's wife, my sister-in-law, she was a singer and I would accompany here, because we were in Cal Massey's band. Cal Massey had her singing in the band and C Sharpe was playing alto, Tootie Heath on drums, Jimmy on bass. He introduced me to John, Calvin did. That's how we met. He was quite a composer. Yeah he wrote.for Bird, 'Fiesta,' and for Carmen McRae.
AAJ: During the sixties and seventies your music was an inspiration to many people (particularly AfricanAmericans) both politically and spiritually? Do you feel that jazz can again play a similar role in raising the consciousness of its listeners?
MT: The music definitely had a strong spirit(ual component). You see John came out of that kind of thing. His grandfather was a minister and mother played piano in church so he would spend time (in church). And then he got interested in Eastern religion. I think basically he was a very spiritual person, so the music had that. And then I was raised in Christianity and switched to the Islamic faith, but I don't think it's just one religion I think it's you as an individual. I think if you, no matter what religion you are, if you're a spiritual person it just comes out.
The thing is, the band, John was the leader of the band and he set the pace and direction, but he also listened to us, so he saw things and played also according to what was around him. So we sort of listened to each other and complemented each other. We had freedom, he never inhibited us, he didn't want that to happen because Miles gave him that kind of freedom when he was in Miles' band.
AAJ: Quite often you used that freedom to 'lay out.'
MT: Yeah, well when he first told me about strollin' I said, 'I can't sit here and do nothin'.' But then again, he was right. Because dynamically it made sense. For me to accompany him his entire solo didn't make as well. So what we'd do, we'd get him launched and then I'd drop out and he could take it from there, because the dynamics were up here, so it goes up. And then Jimmy would drop out, so it would be him and Elvin. But it didn't start out like that. Then it made sense, because I'd say 'Man, he just played a 45 minute solo. Suppose I had to play those 45 minutes.'
AAJ: You were glad to get the break.
MT: Yeah, it was good and then it made sense, because when the band came in after he was finished what he was playing, the band was like yeah, like (wow) fresh air.
AAJ: Despite your reputation for being a dense, very powerful player, there's also a lot of space in your music and a lot of tenderness, too: sometimes all within the same piece.
MT: Yeah John was like that. He played 'I Want To Talk About You' and some other ballads. Then we did the Ballads album. He loved singers. With John, we'd be on the road sometimes and John would start singing (sings) 'O Solo Mio.' But he loved singers. That's why we did the album with Johnny Hartman ' because him and Johnny were together in Dizzy's band. Johnny used to sing with the band. So they went way back, but he just loved singers. Especially good singers.
AAJ: What do you think about current trends in American popular music? Do you hear any r & b you like or don't like?
MT: Yeah, it's very commercial. I mean it's always had commercial appeal, but when I was growing up with a lot of the doo wop groups, there was a lot of music in Philly, Frankie Lymon. There were a lot of guys that came out of Philly. I worked with Solomon Burke. I went to junior high school with him. But it was good music. They were singing love songs. The music was good. It was different from what we were doing, because I was listening to Bud, Miles, Monk, Dizzy. But it was quality music and the lyrics were so nice. I know things change. I'm realistic and I know that things will change, but like I said, there's a difference in the quality. There were some things I was playing with some real r & b tenor players in Philly, honkin' and screamin', but they had the gigs, so I worked. Blues singers . . . My band, I toured a little once with Illinois Jacquet and my tenor player memorized 'Flyin' Home,' and we were on a talent show at the uptown theater and that's how we won the show. That and Benny Green's 'Blow Your Horn,' (sings the solo). That's how we won the talent show. The music was good, it wasn't bad, because jazz ... there wasn't so much of a division between jazz. Jazz players played in those kind of bands and those guys were maybe striving to play jazz. The line wasn't drawn then, but there was quality on both sides. Even pop, regular popular music.
I love jazz because it mixes intellect and emotion in a very spontaneous way.
I was first exposed to jazz by liberating a Coltrane and a Pharoah Sanders record from a friend in NYC and listening to them over and over until I got it.
My advice to new listeners is you have to take the time to listen to some jazz tunes a number of times until it starts to make sense.