Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

February 10–17, 2000


Interview with McCoy Tyner

by Nate Chinen

If someone were to come to your music for the first time, they could start in a number of places. Your '90s output alone includes trio work, a Burt Bacharach project, a Latin band, a big band — there are a lot of places to start. What fuels that interest in diverse playing situations?

I've always been kind of like that; I do things in contrast to each other. In other words, I'm not too much of a sequel person in terms of doing the same thing. I like to surround myself in different settings, because I put myself in the listener's position in a lot of ways. Just me personally, I like to be challenged by different things. In writing for voices, and at times writing for string ensembles, and big bands, and doing quartet things and sextets; I mean, it's all there. There's some things I would like to do with a chorus again, like I did in Inner Voices, a record from a long time ago [Milestone, 1977]. I'd like to try that again, but do something different with it. I think there are a lot of variety of things you can do, and why not do them?

At the same time, Impulse! just reissued your set at Newport from 1963.

Oh yeah, with Charlie Mariano and Clark Terry. Yeah, I like that record. I remember getting there, that was the thing. The first time I had ever ridden in a single-engine plane. I was playing with Coltrane, I think we were in either Montreal or Boston. But I had to get a single-engine plane. It wasn't too comfortable; like a kite, you know. It was a very calm day, but it seemed like we were bouncing all over the place.

When you listen to a recording like that now, what goes through your mind?

Well, you know, I don't have any regrets about anything, and I feel good about the things in my life. I don't rest on my laurels because I'm always thinking of something else to do. And, you know, I like to look back and eventually I think I'm going to do that, kind of do that. And I have been doing that a little bit, in choosing some of the older things that I've written and revitalizing them, and bringing them forward. There are some nice songs, and I just need to go back and collect them and play them; I mean, why just write them for a recording session? Some of them I do play, because I like the songs. "Fly With the Wind," and various other pieces. So I like doing that, going back and picking up some of these. But by the same token, I also like to write new songs.

I remember reading in an interview a couple of years ago that you were starting to pay attention to your own compositions as a body of work.

Yes. I need to really make a conscious effort to go back. Because there are some songs that come to my mind that I wrote, and I haven't played them in years. I think I did play them at the time after I recorded them, but then I stopped playing them. And I really like those songs, and I think it would be very effective for me to go back and pick them up, along with some of the other songs I've already collected from my past. But I am stimulated when it comes to new material.

What inspires you to compose now? What sounds are rattling around in your head?

Well, I'm very fortunate that I have a sort of wellspring of experience to draw from. From all the different things I've done, and people I've played with, and bands I've had, and different places I've been to. The only thing that's sort of a luxury to me is time. Because I like to sort of divide my time up and my life up in terms of trying to include everything — in terms of relaxation, in terms of work. Because I travel a lot, and that takes up a lot of my time. But there's so much writing I want to do. I have a big band, and I want to write more for that. We have a gig here in May at the Blue Note, so I want to bring out some new charts for the band, because we haven't been working much in the past year. And then I want to do some string ensemble stuff; not orchestra, but sort of small group string sound. There's a lot to do. I mean, music is so broad, and there are so many ways you can put these things together. I've got some things in the cooker now. I'm trying to conceptualize some things now, and commemorate this new millennium here.

Throughout your career, the one format that keeps coming up — even with different personnel — is the trio. That seems to be very central to your musical conception. You've worked more with the trio than with any other format.

I still do. It's very interesting, because you can do so much with it. In other words, what I do when I'm playing with a trio — I break it down, do solo stuff, and then I come back and do duets. Whatever. There's so much to do. You can sound like a big band with it; you can have very subtle, quiet moments. The range of dynamics with a trio is amazing. It can cover quite a bit.

That seems especially true in your case, given the people you've chosen to work with in that setting.

Yeah. I have a new trio record on Telarc. It's got Stanley Clarke and Al Foster. I really like the record a lot. It's really nice. There are some really interesting things going on. Like I say, I don't pigeonhole myself. I sort of listen to what's going on today, and try to draw on what's happening.

Your working trio, with Avery Sharpe and Aaron Scott, has been intact for some time. I think there's a development there as a unit.

Yeah, there is. I love playing with them, because I think we have established ourselves as a viable group, as a creative — a real sound, a real unit, you're right. I'm very happy to go to work and play. Because I think that as long as we don't get so comfortable that we're afraid to take chances. That's the reason why I veer off and do other things. I like the comfort zone, but I don't want to get completely absorbed in it to the point where I lose interest in other things. Avery's been with me about 17, 18 years, and that's a long time. If I blink an eye, he knows what I mean. He knows exactly what I mean. These [are] signs, but nobody can see them. It's all about facial expression and twitching of the eyes. That's great, though, that kind of communication. It's a tight group. But I grew up like that. Even the bands that I had, they were born and we all went our own way naturally. I've never forced anything to happen or forced it to go away. It's something that happens, it's born and matures, and you move on to something else. The thing is, there was sort of a gap there, between the younger generation of musicians and my generation. See, when I was growing up in Philadelphia I played with older musicians. There was no question, if you were talented, then they right away took you under their wing and you played with them. And they were more experienced and you learned. But there was a gap there, and even if I wanted to change and do something else, for a long time there weren't a lot of young guys that were really qualified. Now, there is. There's an up-and-coming generation of young guys, and fortunately a lot of them are from Philly. Christian McBride did some things with me, and he's really amazing. He knows songs that I wrote that I forgot. We were playing together in Oakland a couple years ago, and I said: "Christian, did I write this song?" He said, "Yeah, remember this song." I said: "But I forgot the bridge." He said: "Here's the bridge!" He memorized a lot of my repertoire. But like I said, growing up in Philadelphia was just fantastic. I'm so happy I grew up in Philly. What a musical town, it still is and I think it always will be. Just amazing, the experience I had — you can't put a price on it.

I guess some of that feeling comes back when you play a gig like this, at the Keswick.

Yeah, the Keswick has been kind of like home for us in terms of a larger venue. The guy who runs it, Roy, such a nice guy. He's a lover of music, and loves jazz, and he always has the door open for us to come back. It's such a pleasure to play there.

You mentioned the size of the venue. This is another thing I wanted to mention. I've seen you play with a trio on a number of outdoor festival stages: at the Hawaii Jazz Festival, the Mellon Jazz Festival, Newport. Each of these is a huge open-air environment.

In Philly, down near Penn's Landing. That's a nice venue. When I was there, John Blake played with me, and Ravi. That thing was amazing. It's one of the nicest places to play.

Well, this is really something, because with a basic acoustic piano trio, you were able to fill an outdoor arena. At Newport, it was like an explosion of sound…

Well, thanks.

…and it's quite a challenge to have that bigness of sound and still maintain a sensitivity. How did that develop? From the very beginning you were playing big venues, I guess.

Yeah. What it is, is, we play a variety of places, and there has to be adjustments made. Because of the acoustics of the venue. We adjust very quickly if we're playing in an outdoor thing, because in Europe in the summertime we play a lot of outdoor venues. And some of them are old Roman amphitheaters. In the south of France we played a major festival down there. And it's just amazing. The sound is just unbelievable. There are thousands of people, and you can hear a pin drop. But we're used to making that adjustment. We raise the dynamics and the volume according to where we are. As long as we vary the dynamic — that's very important, because your range can really be wide. We play all sorts of places, and that's the reason why when you heard us, we knew that we had a lot of space to cover, and I think it's an automatic kind of thing. Subtlety can be a very effective thing to use. To bring the intensity down. And then, if you need to raise up, you have someplace to go.

In the current issue of JazzTimes, you have an interview with Bill Milkowski.

You know, I haven't read that. I had some work done on my apartment, and I don't know where I put it.

Well, one of the points of that article was the number of different projects you've been working on. And weighing that output against nostalgia, especially with the material from the Coltrane quartet. I imagine that must be quite a real temptation.

Yeah. Well you know, for a while there, you go through these periods. I was so immersed in the music when I was with John; it was a very intense situation in terms of being involved and creating music on such a high level, that it took me a while even after leaving the quartet. The influence was so great, and the roles we all played in that group; you couldn't divorce yourself from it just because you weren't physically there. For a while there, all the horn players that were with me wanted to sound like John. So I deliberately started using alto sax, and other instruments, because I wanted to kind of try something different. And then I got some comments from people, like, "we thought you were going to be playing the same as you did with John." I had moved on to something else. I mean, the influences are there. I'm very proud of my background, I'm very proud of my musical influences. But the thing is, I like to move on. I kind of stayed away from that for a while, not consciously. But I had so many things I wanted to do. So now and then, I'll go back, and do some things. It's important to not deny your background, but to build on it.

A lot of what you're playing now, even when you're improvising, speaks of that experience — but with the entire range of jazz history in some cases. You'll throw in a stride piano section somewhere…

Yeah, I like that, because that's part of the history of the instrument and part of the history of the music. I don't like to see anything disappear, because it's so important a part of the music and part of its development. That's one reason why I formed the big band — because we had lost Gil Evans, we lost Duke Ellington, Count Basie. You know, we lost a lot of people. And a lot of members of my band were former members of Thad Jones and Mel Lewis' band, Gil Evans' band. That's one of the reasons why I formed it in 1984.

Do you feel it's the responsibility of someone in your position, to try to preserve this?

Yeah. There's that nostalgia — or, not so much nostalgia as the fact of trying to preserve certain things. I mean, I can't preserve everything, but I think that what I do is a culmination of what happened before, along with my own ideas and experience, which are predominant in my playing. But these people who came before me — I don't think I have to play like Fats Waller necessarily to hear his influence in the music, but I admire what he did. So that's why sometimes I like to do certain things that are a little bit of a reminiscence of what happened before. I'm not necessarily trying to emphasize 1915 or 1920, but…

At the same time, you're stretching to include things that other people wouldn't, like the music of Burt Bacharach.

I'm not afraid to try things, as long as I can… like, what John Clayton and Tommy LiPuma and I did was try to pick songs that we thought would fit, that I could do something with. Burt's a nice guy; after I met him I was so happy I did the project. But we picked some of the music Burt had written that I thought would be a good format for me. And John Clayton arranged it, and he knew what my style was about. What he did was, he sort of tailor-made some of Burt's songs to fit my style. We changed some of the harmonics, so you could hear that it was definitely his song, but we changed the form of the song so it would be easier for me to work with.

What other material do you think you'll be looking to in the near future?

Well, I've got some ideas, but I'm afraid to say anything. There's this record producer with another label, he's always asking me, "What's next?" There's no rivalry here, but with record companies you have to be careful what you say. I say something to this guy and before you know it, all his artists are coming out with some of the ideas I had mentioned. It's like the stock market here. So now I say, "Let me keep my mouth shut, just get the stuff out." Sometimes I don't know what I'm doing next until the idea hits me. I try to stay in touch with life and what's going on around me. Hopefully some things will come to me and usually they do.

What's it like to listen to people of the younger generation who have learned from and absorbed some of your stylistic contributions?

I feel very honored, actually. I really do, because I think that if I could make a statement that makes a difference, and the influence could be preserved through the generations to come, that means that my stay here on earth has a meaning. Other than making a living, which is very important, too. But if you have something that's significant enough to people that they're willing to adopt some of it, to try to emulate it; or maybe it opens the door to themselves, which is what happened to me when I listened to Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, and Art Tatum later on in my life. They opened the door for me. They let me know what the possibilities were, playing the piano. What you can do with it, how it sounds in different ways. But one thing, from talking to some of the jazz critics — they always emphasize individuality. And when I grew up, that's the way it was. I could tell from listening: "Oh, that's Monk, that's Bud, that's Art Tatum, that's Oscar." And you do that with just about every instrument if you were keen enough and aware enough. Because having your own sound was very key. That's who you are.

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