Pianist Tyner tickles the ivory tower

Listening isn't really McCoy Tyner's cup of tea, whether it's the latest CD or conventional wisdom on his home city. Perhaps that's why Tyner sounds like no one else.

The distinctive piano style he created catapulted him to jazz stardom, first with the Jazztet, when Tyner was barely out of his teens. Within a year, he joined fellow Philadelphian John Coltrane's quartet and played on the saxophonist's most storied recordings, from My Favorite Things to the immortal A Love Supreme. Now 67, Tyner's influence is apparent on nearly every player on the scene, but he continues to work out new directions in his music; his 2004 Illuminations (Telarc) won the Grammy for Best Jazz Instrumental Album. recess' David Graham talked to McCoy Tyner about Coca-Cola, caviar and Coltrane.

recess: It's fair to say that you're the most influential living jazz pianist. How would you like your influence to be remembered?

McCoy Tyner: I think that what's going on right now sort of represents how I'd like to be remembered-as a guy who made a difference, who carried the lineage on. I think I've been very fortunate in that way, playing with the John Coltrane Quartet and having my own band and helping some younger musicians out. I don't like to blow my own horn-well, play my own piano (laughs), I don't like to play my own piano. It's just what I've played over the years, and it's good to have made a difference.

r: Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, of course, but I recently read an interview where a young piano player was complaining about how if he tried to play anything beyond his "McCoy sh-" at a jam session, guys would get angry because they couldn't play Wayne Shorter and Coltrane licks.

MT: I don't understand that. People do it, but I don't know why. People who don't really know where they're going tend to be more critical of a younger guy who has his own direction. It's his own thing, and the point of this music is to express yourself.

r: How did growing up in Philadelphia affect your music? Is there a Philly sound?

MT: Philadelphia is a wonderful city. I'm so happy I grew up there. It was a wonderful town. I loved growing up there 'cause even though it wasn't so big that it rivaled New York, we had a good family life and you were encouraged to do something. It made you firm in what you wanted to do and there was always someone at your back. Teachers were always very encouraging, too.

As to the music, there might be a sound, I don't know. I think that was coined by some R&B guys, some blues guys. I don't know what they were talking about! (laughs) Like Detroit. Detroit was a great music town and people would compare the two cities. They'd say, "Oh that has a Detroit sound, that's a Philly sound." I don't know, maybe they have a point, but I don't listen to people too much. Individuals have sounds; [pianist] Thelonious Monk was from New York, but he sounded like Monk, not like New York.

r: I won't ask too many Coltrane questions-I'm sure you've heard them all-but with the passing of drummer Elvin Jones in 2004, you're the last living member of that classic quartet.

MT: I feel very honored and blessed to have worked with those guys-they were like big brothers to me. Elvin was so protective. If he saw me smoking a cigarette, he'd make me smoke a cigar. Of course, those are worse for you! (laughs) But seriously, if he saw me drinking a Coke and he thought it was something else, he'd tell me, "Don't drink so much, don't smoke."

I knew [Elvin's brother, trumpeter-arranger] Thad, I'd heard of [Elvin's other brother, pianist] Hank, but I'd never heard of Elvin. Trane was looking for drummers, and he said there was this guy Elvin Jones. I think John had met him when he was with Miles and Elvin used to sit it. I said, "Look, if you say he's good, I'll believe it." When Elvin joined the band, John said, "Why don't you and Elvin go play?" The two of us played and it was great, we didn't even need a bass player! He could play whatever he wanted, but he never lost that cymbal beat.

r: Listening to those recordings, there's always a solid groove, but there's so much going on that it seems like it would have been hard to stay together.

MT: It wasn't tough because Elvin had such good time and Jimmy [Garrison, the group's bassist] had a great beat. He could swing-it wasn't even the notes he chose, but the feeling-and I would lock into them like crazy.

The worst thing in the world is to play with a drummer and bass player who don't work musically. You try to play on top, you're liable to break something! (laughs) Our groove was really strong; John came out of the R&B thing and I had an R&B band when I was growing up too.

r: What was that band called? Did you write most of the material?

MT: I'm trying to remember... I think it was the McCoy Tyner Seven-no, just kidding; I don't think we had an official name. I wrote a lot of songs, and we played some things off records, too. That's where I got my apprenticeship, writing for that band.

r: You struggled some in the late 1960s, after you had left Coltrane's band, right?

MT: Yeah, there was a little... deprivation. That's the way it was. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, and sometimes struggle's good-it gives you conviction. You know, you might say caviar is terrible, but you gotta eat that caviar first. I don't know, maybe that's what you eat, maybe it isn't. Give me a sandwich, I'm fine (laughs).

r: You never really jumped on the electric piano or fusion bandwagon. Why not?

MT: I have an electric keyboard so I don't wake up the elderly people who live near me. I live in an apartment building, so I have to be conscious of the stuff around me. Also, Steinway uses my name, I use their name, whatever. If I need some space, I can go to Steinway and play brand new pianos.

But acoustic piano is something I really love and I grew up playing it-and you can't unplug it (laughs). It's not that I hate electric piano; it's just a matter of taste.

r: But you have worked with Carlos Santana, and I've also heard that Grateful Dead rhythm guitarist Bob Weir taught himself to play rhythm guitar by listening to your comping.

That's good to hear. I'm not familiar with him-although I've heard of the Grateful Dead, of course, they're a famous band-but perhaps someday I'll meet him. A lot of people, you know of them, but you never meet them.

There's a lot of guys like Carlos, and well, music is music as far as I'm concerned, and he's good. It's pretty simple. Whatever a guy does is up to him-it's his expression, contemporary or whatever. I listen for sincerity. That's what real artists do-they look for that sincerity, that genuine feeling.

r: What's something you listen to that might really surprise people?

MT: I'll be honest with you, I don't listen to other people's CDs. I have my own direction. I'm not saying that what I'm doing is better, but I'm trying to figure out where I am. I need to stay close to myself, figure out where I'm going. Hands on experience, you can't beat that. It might be the hard way (chuckling), but if it's the best way, so be it.

r: A review of one of your records in the 1990s started, "No longer trying to push the envelope of innovation, Tyner." Do you feel that's accurate?

MT: When I was with John [Coltrane], it was all about innovation. We'd be in a club and he'd be in the back practicing. It's good to try new things, but sometimes it comes at the expense of leaving people behind. I think it's fine and it's important to keep the art from moving. Some people say, "I'll do whatever I'm doing, bop bop bop, and if you don't like it, don't listen!" (laughs) I'm not like that, but I don't bend over backwards to please people either.

r: Talk a little about the players you have in your band.

MT: [Drummer] Eric Gravatt played with me in the 1970s and then he was with Weather Report. [Bassist] Charnett [Moffett] I met when he was a kid-his father, who played drums with Ornette Coleman, introduced me. Charnett has a good sense of space, he can play in and out and his ears are big. If I want to stretch out, he'll follow right along.

r: You've played a lot with trios recently.

MT: Sometimes I play with a septet, so I've been playing a few gigs with them. I do like playing in the trio-I feel real free. I like to write also, so it's a two-way situation: I like to write, so I need horns to write for! (laughs) I like writing for a trio, too. It's really good because it really gives the rhythm section a chance for a showcase.

r: For your gig here, you're being billed as a "blues-based pianist." While that's true, it seems obvious and oversimplified. How would you like to be described?

MT: As a guy who wasn't afraid to take his chances-and hopefully to come out with something relevant! (laughs) It might be a general statement, but I think it makes sense.

The McCoy Tyner Trio appears at Page Auditorium Thursday, Oct. 19 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15 to $25. See tickets.duke.edu for more info.


Share and discuss “Pianist Tyner tickles the ivory tower” on social media.