Interview with McCoy Tyner, November 2005 by Leon Kerkstra

In november 2005, McCoy Tyner performed at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, Holland. We had a chance to talk with McCoy Tyner about his life and music before the performance, a true pleasure off course. At the start of the interview we first of all confronted McCoy with some information and screen-shots of the Jazz Resource Center to show him what our website is about. McCoy replied when he saw our "Scales" page...

McCOY TYNER: You know, I don't have a title for my scales, I just play [laughs].

JRC: We also have our page about piano voicings...

McCOY TYNER: I never analyze what I do for a reason, because I don't want to think of it as something technically. But maybe for students it's interesting. I'm not saying no one should sit down and analyze what I do, but I don't want to do it to myself. If I would start doing that, I'm finished.

But it's good you have this information for people, if they have questions, they have some response and good information on your site.

JRC: If we have a look at your latest albums, we have "Illuminations" and "Land of Giants". On "Land of Giants" there is an original composition called "Manalyuca"...

McCOY TYNER: yeah... those kind of songs... they have this modal kind of feeling, I like that. Well, I don't like to use the word "modal" but when people hear it they say: "It sound's modal". But I understand what they mean, because it's a vamp and you're free to do whatever you want to with the sound. But it's nice, because when I grew up they were playing a lot of changes. You know when I were a teenager... you had these bebop songs. At that time most of them were like that, you had Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk...they had a lot of changes. But then later on, as time went on, you had Miles Davis and John [Coltrane] who changed the concept of how you can play this music. Which is a very old concept when I think about it. You have the opportunity to play what you want; you can play changes or keep it simple.

JRC: But maybe playing modal requires more of one's creativity?

McCOY TYNER: Yeah... with the changes, it kind of blocks you in. It's ok, but I think it restricts you. With an open sound you can do whatever you want to do. I think it's more personal.

JRC: Does the title "Manalyuca" have a particular meaning? Because you've recorded the same song before as "Sama Layuca" on your album "Sama Layuca". So the same song, but the title is different?

McCOY TYNER: Yeah, it's the same song [laughs]. Sometimes we do that, you know, composers in jazz. Maybe in other music they do it as well. You like the melody, so you just change the title but it's the same thing.

JRC: But is it a certain language or is it just a name?

McCOY TYNER: No, it's no language. Some things are my language, I made it up [laughs].

JRC: [Meanwhile our coffee and some cakes are brought in, and together we enjoy it.] You do travell a lot?

McCOY TYNER: Yeah Leon, you know that's the major part of my life...travelling. I really appreciate it when I go home. See my grandchildren, my friends, because you know I don't see them all the time. Like when I see my granddaughter you grew another two inches! It's always good too see them and I enjoy being home.

JRC: You have probably been almost everywhere, haven't you?

McCOY TYNER: Yeah, I have been on a lot of places of the world. It's amazing, I guess eventually I will go out of space [laughs]. But we have such a wonderful planet here, we need to preserve it and enjoy what we have.

JRC: Do you sometimes have the feeling you're travelling all the time? or do you have the time to enjoy the culture or surroundings of where you are?

McCOY TYNER: Life in it's beauty, it's very simple. We have to appreciate the beauty of life. The most beautiful things are the most simple things. I don't have to go out and go running around and go buy this and buy that. Everybody has the desire sometimes to have a new suit or something like that, but I think the basis of life is very beautiful. You know, it's simple.

JRC: To go back to your albums... You also play standards off course but you do seem to like certain specific standards like for instance "For All We Know" or "Will You Still Be Mine". What do these songs have that attracts you to it?

McCOY TYNER: They are nice songs, I might play them tonight [laughs]. [He did indeed started the concert playing "Will You Still Be Mine"]. It's something about some songs...sometimes the melody is how the song was put together. You get an idea of what the composer had in mind. If you like to compose yourself, you can feel the song and how it's structured. When you compose, you can give birth to a song, to something important.

JRC: You said in an other interview that you're aware of the public during a performance, and without diminishing the quality of what you're doing, you want them to enjoy the performance. If that's the case, do you sometimes feel you cannot share certain ideas or music with the public?

McCOY TYNER: If you have a love for people, because they came to see you, and obviously they had a reason to come and see you because they think you have something to say musically that is important to their lives, then it is important to you. You express that importance, by whatever it is that is your gift. That's why I'm here, I have something to present. It's very important that the artist understands why he's doing what he's doing.

So, it does not matter, I play for my self when I play for people too. Sometimes I listen to a recording and I say wow... seems like I was trying to say something. So I'm the observer and I'm the participant.

JRC: When you're composing songs, I suppose you do not always have a piano available, since you travell al lot?

McCOY TYNER: That's true, I have a synthesizer at my house. I don't have a regular piano anymore, because it's too big. So I go to Steinway when I want to have a regular piano, it's not far from me. My appartment is not huge, so I could put a baby grand in my appartment but you know...the lady next door and the guy upstears... I don't want to disturbe their lives. But this way I can put earphones on, I basically only use it for composing. I can write a song and nobody can here me three o'clock in the moring.

So I don't have a private practice schedule normally, because when I'm performing... it's like practice for me.

JRC: I think a lot of people who want to have a regular piano have the same problem, but obviously there is still a big difference between a synthesizer and a regular piano...

McCOY TYNER: I used to own a house in Queens, New York. I was raising childeren you know... I don't need a house anymore necessarely. But I used to have a seven foot Steinway in my house. But I didn't play it much, because I was travelling. Steinway has used my name over the years, they don't pay me any money, but if I'm in town I can always call and say...let me use a piano for a few hours. Because they're selling Steinway, they're not gonna say no. [laughs]. So it works fine.

JRC: You started playing the piano at the age of 13 and just a few years later you were playing professionally. How did you manage to reach this level in such a short time?

McCOY TYNER: I used to practice every day. I couldn't wait to come home from school... I couldn't wait because the music became a very very important part of my life. My mother loved piano's, she was a beautician and she took me to somebody's house where they had a piano. She never studied herself, but she liked the piano. So maybe I took that from her. My father liked music, he liked singing in the church. But my mother liked the piano a lot, so when I became interested she said I could take lessons and I said well...fine!

JRC: When you met John Coltrane, he was considering to form his own group but actually he was still performing with Miles Davis. So for instance Miles Davis recorded Kind of Blue with John in 1959, and just one year later John and you recorded "My Favourite Things". Do you think John ever considered introducing you as a pianist for Miles Davis or was he already determined to form his own group?

McCOY TYNER: I think Miles liked my playing, but I think that I was very dedicated to John. We were like friends, he was like a big brother to me. You know, I was in my teens when I met him and he used to call me his little brother [laughs]. I learned a lot from him. So when it was time for him to form his own band, he already had an idea. I didn't know who Elvin Jones was, I had no idea. I knew Hank Jones and Thad [Jones], but I didn't know anything about Elvin. So John told me, I'm gonna use this guy named Elvin. And Jimmy Garrison, he knew him as well. John had some jobs with him, outside of Miles, so that's how we became acquainted.

JRC: About your trio; Charnett Moffett seems to be your regular bass-player lately but tonight you have Reginald Veal?

McCOY TYNER: Charnett, I think he's travelling with some other band or whatever.

You know, I stayed with John for six years because I was in a very unique place. It was excellent for me to be with somebody like him so I can learn. Nowerdays the main target for young people, in most cases, but not all times, is they want to be leaders. They want to be "stars". So a lot of them they don't care as long as their name is out front. They don't care what they learn, you know... learning is a secondary consideration. Not everybody, but with some people it's like that. And I think Charnett has this feeling that he's born to be a star and I wish him a lot of luck.

I think life is about learning something and developing something. You don't have to tell yourself "I'm a star". [laughs]. Life will tell you; you have been in for a it's time for you to explore your own direction. That's good, that's a natural way of things to happen.

JRC: Off course you had Avery Sharpe and Aarron Scott for many years...

McCOY TYNER: That's it, that's an example of what I'm saying. I knew that eventually we would have to change, but the change came very natural. I knew that they got the sense of the time had come as well. And then, when the separation takes place, it's no bad feelings like... I should have stayed longer or whatever, they know they've been there. Not that everybody has to stay 20 years [like Avery Sharpe did], I'm not saying that. Sometimes I've had musicians who stayed shorter, a lot shorter, it's about what has been happening.

JRC: You once said you almost had kind of telepathic way of communication with Avery Sharpe and Aarron Scott because you've worked so many years with them. I suppose it must be hard to rebuild that with new musicians?

McCOY TYNER: Well it depends, it doesn't really take that long. People have to get comfortable.

JRC: For instance your drummer, Eric Kamau Gravatt, I think there was quite a difference [major improvement] in the way he performed in your band at the NSJF (North Sea Jazz Festival) 2004 when he was just new in your band compared to this year at NSJF 2005?

McCOY TYNER: Eric was with me also in the 70s. He was with Weather Report for a while and after that he joined my band. After a few years he joined other bands and he did other things and now, he's back with me. It's a full circle. He's from my home town and we know eachother a long time. Maybe in the beginning of 2004 it was a little rocky boat [laughs] but we were within sync! [laughs]. If people really listen, and respond, it can come together very well. Communication is important and sometimes we are so much into ourselves that we have to diminish "me" againsts to "us". Because we're on stage together. We are doing something together and that's very important.

JRC: Tonight you'll be performing with Joe Lovano, but it's actually kind of sad because he is replacing Michael Brecker who would have joined you originally? [Michael Brecker has cancelled all his performances because he's very ill]

McCOY TYNER: Mike is a beautiful person, a really talented musician. Yeah, I like Mike a lot.

JRC: Are there any future plans or albums we can look forward too?

McCOY TYNER: Well, I'm not sure what I'll be doing next. Hmm...the last one was with my quintet right...I might do something bigger. It has been some time since I've done a bigband album, but we'll see. Sometimes it's a suprise to me! I like to leave it like that, in stead of planning everything.

JRC: Your last duo album has been in 1993, with Bobby Hutcherson...

McCOY TYNER: Yeah, we're very good friends. We're very considered of eachother, because we know eachother such a long time. So it's easier to play with him. Conceptionally we're very close musically, that's great. I had that with John off course. Bobby is a very rare person in that way. We enjoy playing together a lot.

I like the musicians that play with me to be themselves and have freedom, but they usually know which direction I like. Not every detail, but they have an idea of what kind of concept I like. Like Bobby Hutcherson and Michael Brecker, they know how I feel about music.

©2005 Leon Kerkstra. JRC.  JAZZ RESOURCE CENTER