A few lessons from the University of Mccoy Tyner
In the Eastern Mediterranean, the term "effendi" is reserved for a person of authority, education, and reputation. On pianist McCoy Tyner's first solo album, 1962's Inception, "Effendi" makes an appearance as an original composition, which is fitting since there could be no better term to describe one of jazz's most respected ambassadors. Making his name as the 88-key man in the seminal John Coltrane Quartet, Tyner has since forged one of the most distinguished reputations in jazzdom.
With the help of his piano-playing mother -- who saved a year's worth of beautician earnings to get her son's first piano -- Tyner began playing in his native Philadelphia, meeting Coltrane in the mid-1950s at Philly's Red Rooster when he was only 17. Coltrane asked him to join his band after the famed saxophonist left the Miles Davis Sextet in 1960. For the next five years, Coltrane and Tyner, with master bassist Jimmy Garrison and polyrhythmic king Elvin Jones, made jazz history, adding new vocabulary to the poetry of jazz.
In the intervening four decades, Tyner has put his name on well over 70 albums. Showing no sign of deceleration, the pianist's latest release, Live at the Village Vanguard (Impulse), is a tribute to his former bandleader. Recorded on Coltrane's 71st birthday, the live album features Coltrane standards like "Naima," and pieces the jazz giant brought to the fore, such as Mongo Santamaria's stellar "Afro-Blue."
A dynamic live performer, Tyner was the first musician to play at Austin's One World Theatre, a venue that complements his elegance and expressiveness. While he's not as physically immense as peers Chucho Valdez or Randy Weston, Tyner has a commanding presence on the opaque and alabaster keys. And with the synthesized power of Art Tatum, Bud Powell's lyricism, and the creative looping of Thelonious Monk, Tyner's playing is a jazz piano history lesson. No one has the sheer expressiveness of the real McCoy.
Winner of a handful of Grammys, Tyner keeps attracting accolades. Next week the jazz effendi travels to Long Beach to receive an American Jazz Masters Fellowship from The National Endowment for the Arts. Mellow but far from meek, Tyner spoke from his New York residence about the state of creative jazz, attending John Coltrane University, performing in Austin, and the African roots of jazz.
Austin Chronicle: Define jazz.
McCoy Tyner: That's a pretty tough thing to be specific about, but one thing I can say is that it epitomizes self-expression. Music should sound like you -- it should embody your experiences in life. It's like a mirror, quite simply. It's directly opposed to copying someone, or trying to be like someone. The whole idea is to see what you're about, to see if you can express that in your art.
AC: Different than playing Chopin?
MT: Oh, it really is, because it's on-the-moment expression. It's not something that's thought of before. It's all about the moment.
AC: Does that provide a direct line to expression?
MT: Absolutely. When you're involved in this particular art form, you learn how to create at the moment, which I think is very, very interesting. It's not something you think about a month ahead, unless you're writing a song or something like that. Playing this kind of music is on-the-spot creativity. You sharpen your skills at being creative on the spot, and I think this is a very interesting concept.
AC: It's not like any other art form is it?
MT: No, it's not. Once you create it, it's gone.
AC: And the interaction with other musicians?
MT: There's a lot of things you learn performing this music, especially with other people. You learn how to have respect for another person, how to listen, how to respond, how to be supportive. That was a very good lesson for me, to be able to support John [Coltrane] all those years. I learned a lot from being supportive. Sometime it's not a matter of being out front, it's a matter of just listening and seeing what's going on. You can learn a lot from playing that role.
AC: You've led everything from trios to big bands and all points in-between, yet you seem to gravitate toward the trio format.
MT: The piano is a fantastic instrument. It's an orchestra, it's a big band, but at the same time, it's a solo instrument. It can be a lot of things, and it lends itself to a lot of different situations musically. That's one of the things I love about it. The logistics of trying to move 15 people around on tour, and paying for it -- it's a lot of responsibility. I did do that for a while; I led big band tours through Europe three or four times, and some festivals around the country. But the trio setting is a very practical way to move around, and I love it. I can play solo, or sound like a big band. It's a very interesting way to express yourself in that setting.
AC: You've had your current trio forever.
MT: Oh yeah, [bassist] Avery [Sharpe] has been with me for like 20 years, and [drummer] Aaron [Scott] been with me for about 16 years.
AC: Address the state of "real" jazz today, versus what's marketed as "smooth" jazz.
MT: It's a little confusing, to say the least. I'm not saying that art has to stay the same. I think, characteristically, the music should maintain its true character, wherever it's going. It's almost to the point that the real thing is not available to the general public. It's more like pop music. In many cases, if you add vocals it would be what you'd hear on a pop or R&B station. Not that I'm putting it down, I mean music is music. I'm just saying that to misrepresent the real art form, is a little, um ... not too nice.
In Europe, they like the music as it is. I was just in Lucerne, Switzerland, and people really come out to hear the real music, the jazz that they're familiar with. Their ears are wide open, they're used to going out to concerts. When the radio becomes your only medium for defining what this music is about, you're not given the real story. I don't worry about anything like that though. I don't have any control over the media. [Laughs] But I think it can be a little confusing for some people.
AC: What's the true character of real jazz?
MT: The music has a long history. You have to go all the way back to the early 1900s. It's an art form that has developed over the years, and if you listen to it, you can hear the progression, and see that is has a long background.
AC: You've described playing in Coltrane's band as being your university.
MT: Yes it was. First of all, to have an opportunity to play with someone on that level is really unusual. I mean, he was a genius musician. To be able to play with someone like that every night was educational, as well as exciting in so many ways. And challenging. I didn't go to college for music -- that was my college. [Laughs]
AC: Once again you're playing at the One World Theatre in Austin.
MT: Yeah, interesting setup there. The people who run it are very interested in music and art, committed to a higher level. That whole architectural structure is very interesting, very intimate, people right there on top of everything. They always have a good piano there, and it's very comfortable. It has kind of European flavor, real nice.
AC: This is the third time you've played in Austin in the last few years.
MT: I like playing there, the people respond, they listen. Austin's a nice town, it really is.
AC: What will we hear?
MT: I'm going to play some songs from the [new] record, as well as some earlier material.
AC: You've performed in Africa in recent years.
MT: Yes, I've played in Tunisia and Senegal. The French government put on a festival down in a placed called St. Louis in Senegal, and I played that. It was real nice.
AC: Any similarities in African music and jazz?
MT: Oh yeah, absolutely. I think that's where it really emanated. It came to the States, and then of course it combined with European-style music. Black plantation workers learned how to play European music, on the violin, cello, playing church hymns, but they also played some of the classical repertoire. So they were exposed to a lot of different things. So yeah, I definitely see the relationship between African music and Afro-American music.
AC: Who are your greatest influences?
MT: Well, John was a major influence in my life. We got to be close. He was like a big brother to me. He was a combination of both a musical and personal influence in my life. Of course, my mother was the greatest support system that I could've ever had.
AC: Describe McCoy Tyner.
MT: Hard-working musician [laughs]. It's really hard to describe yourself, but I think that I'm diligent, and I try to keep my music as close to what the real deal is supposed to be. I think that's important, to put out there where you're really at as an artist, instead of going with what's popular at the time.
The McCoy Tyner Trio performs two sets, 7 & 9:30pm, at the One World Theatre, Saturday, January 12. For more information, call 32-WORLD.