McCoy Tyner ranks as one of the most important piano stylists in post-war jazz. His recordings with the John Coltrane Quartet, such as 1964’s “A Love Supreme,” remain high points of musical improvisation and spirituality. The mid-’60s music created by Coltrane, Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones expanded music toward greater freedom and integrity. The Quartet’s intensity is still unmatched.
As Coltrane moved deeper into his own style of free jazz before his death in 1967, Tyner stepped out on his own. On Tyner’s many recordings since 1962, his harmonic clarity and spontaneity has influenced a generation of pianists, though few ever managed to attain his rich textures and rhythmic energy.
In early February, Tyner’s trio played sold out shows at Tokyo’s Blue Note. Many in the crowd were not yet born when Tyner and Coltrane expanded the limits of jazz, yet they seemed to hang on every note with genuine appreciation.
Before the shows, New York-based Tyner took time to talk about his music and passions. His natural liveliness and warm sense of humor often burst into room-filling laughs as strong, and complex, as his piano playing. Yet, a sense of wistfulness and nostalgia emerged as well, as he talked about his life in jazz.
Do you find that living in New York really feeds into your music?
New York is the kind of place where you can always chill out, but at the same time, it’s got all this activity going on as well. Whatever you experience in life, whether it’s going to a particular place or participating in some activity, it affects your life. You gain from that experience. Hopefully, it’s good! (laughs).
But aren’t you traveling quite a lot?
I try to stay home as much as I can without losing too much work! It’s not a matter of affording it, but I do like playing music. That’s what it is. Travel for me is the opportunity for meeting people and having new experiences. I’ve been here a lot, but I’m always interested in something new, something different.
Does that mean meeting new musicians?
Yes, a familiarity comes when you get a chance to work with people over time. You get a chance to know how people think and how they feel. There are a lot of people in Japan that I met a long time ago, and I still wonder what they’re doing.
With people you know well, do you play differently?
People have their own kind of language. With a friend you have for a long time you can almost expect how he’s going to express himself, even if you don’t quite know what he will say exactly. You finish what he’s thinking and know that’s his thing. Those kinds of connections are in the music.
Your style has incredible amounts of energy.
Well, these cappuccinos are really something, you know? (laughs). Where I live, there are coffee shops all over. I can’t miss them. . . . That’s why I live in New York. It’s so convenient. Plenty of cappuccino.
You have the same 10 fingers, I see, but yet get so much energy into your musical language.
I was fortunate to have gotten in with people who play on a high-energy level. John [Coltrane] and the people in my bands played like that. John was really a teacher. I was very fortunate to have met him as a teenager and gotten the opportunity to play in his band. I was hearing all the experience he had every night for years, conversing with him.
So playing with him was another level of energy altogether?
Yes, but you had to be able to handle a situation like that. You had to be willing, first of all (laughs), and also have the potential to rise to the occasion. He wasn’t going to hold my hand. We were very close. The musical connection helped solidify that. He was very kind to me and treated me like a brother. It was a great privilege and I learned so much.
You also influenced the many great musicians you played with.
Fortunately I was graced with their presence and they were able to walk away with some of the music. After playing with John, actually you become a teacher without wanting to be a teacher. For the musicians who never had a chance to play with John, I became a conduit to experience playing with him. It’s something about being hands-on.
Do you feel the situation is different now in jazz?
The public is being barraged. It’s like breakfast, lunch and dinner, then in-between snacks, I mean, how much can you absorb? And not only that, is it good for you? The time I grew up, we did have a steady diet of really good stuff. Now, they just throw this out and that out and see what sticks. I’m not saying it’s that way all across the board. There are always people that really want to see quality things.
So, you quickly get a sense when people are looking beyond the music?
Some people are receptive to things. I don’t think you can force a meal down someone’s throat that’s not hungry. With music and information, they have to be prepared to hear what you have to say. And hopefully, they enjoy the meal!
One of the highlights of your recording career is your Latin album “McCoy Tyner and the Latin Jazz All-Stars” (1999). Did you always play Latin?
I used to play conga drums a long time ago, but I stopped because I was studying piano and, well, actually, I got affiliated with a dance school. I was studying dance for a while, but don’t tell anybody (laughs).
But music was there, too?
At the school, I was just a kid, all these guys from Africa and from Europe came to teach classes. It was interesting not only for what they taught but for the recorded music they had. There were guys who came through the school who would choreograph to Latin music and European ballet. So I got a chance to hear all this music. It was all one essence then. That’s the real culture in America. It’s an amazing sweep of expression really.
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