An Interview with
by Mark Ruffin
Simply put, McCoy Tyner is one of the best piano players in the world. His new album, “McCoy Tyner And The Latin All-Star” features Dave Valentin, Steve Turre, Giovanni Hildalgo and a host of musicians.
JazzUSA: McCoy, why did you choose a Latin theme for your latest album?
MT: Well, the first time I did a record like this, I think was in 1982. That was “La Layenda De La Hora( Legend Of The Hour)
JazzUSA: Yeah, it was just re-issued last year.
MT: Yeah, I did that a long time ago. Paquito D’Rivera had just defected from Cuba and I thought wow, what a great opportunity to do a Latin album. I’ve been interested in this music, because of the ethnicity of it, I mean there are common roots between Afro-Cuban music and American jazz.
JazzUSA: “Legend Of The Hour” was big band, strings, this album is pared down with a much smaller group, which gives you more room to explore, is that right?
MT: That’s right. That’s very important. That’s one thing about small groups. Basically, the groups are different and the way you deal with each situation. You can still keep your character and your inventiveness, but it’s different when you have like 15 or 16 people to deal with.
JazzUSA: So it’s even easier with just a trio?
MT: Oh yeah, and even easier playing solo (laughs).
JazzUSA: Your current trio is Avery Sharpe on bass and Aaron Scott on drums and how long have you guys been together?
JazzUSA: The album is really wonderful and your version of “Poinciana” is so you, despite the stamp that Ahmad Jamal has perpetually put on that song, usually no matter who does it.
MT: I loved Ahmad’s version of it so much that for a long time I wouldn’t even consider recording it, because I held it in so much reverence. It was just so beautiful with that trio he had and they way they recorded it. So it took me a while but I thought now was a good time to do it.
JazzUSA: McCoy you have such a long history, but that period with John Coltrane must’ve been very special.
MT: It was unbelievable. I couldn’t wait to go to work at night. He was like family. See, I met John when I was like 17. He was kind of like a big brother to me. I used to sit and talk to him on his mother’s porch. I kind of grew up playing in his band. It was wonderful just to talk to him and play music every night. And he was so serious about his music.
JazzUSA: I think a lot of people don’t know that you actually knew John Coltrane a few years before you joined the band.
MT: About three years before I joined the band.
JazzUSA: In fact, correct me if I’m wrong, you made your recording debut with the Art Farmer/Benny Golson Jazztet?
MT: Well there was a record I did before, a Curtis Fuller record and then we did “Meet The Jazztet,”
JazzUSA: Which included the original version of “Killer Joe,” and you were 19.
MT: Something like that.
JazzUSA: And there’s this story about how you were with this band, but actually you were on call waiting for John Coltrane to call you.
MT: That’s very true. What happened was John would come around when Miles wasn’t working and if he got a gig in Philadelphia, I would play with him. He told me when I form my band, I want you to join the band. But every time he wanted to leave, Miles would give him more money to encourage him to stay. So he stayed for a little while. But I decided I couldn’t wait. I was working in the daytime and playing at night, and it was just too much. So when Benny (Golson) came through and the Jazztet was formed. But I told them whenever John leaves Miles, I’m gone. After about two months after he left Miles, I joined the quartet.
JazzUSA: When Coltrane formed the group, were a lot of people surprised at the difference in Coltrane’s groups as opposed to Miles’ group?
MT: He was headed in that direction even when he was with Miles, at least the latter part of his stay with Miles, he was working on those things. In his solos you could hear him changing. But, like you said, when the band happened, it really did have it’s own identity. He had his own music and it was different.
JazzUSA: And Atlantic Records, the company he first recorded the quartet with, made a lot of recordings real fast.
MT: Yeah, we went in and we did “My Favorite Things” and “Coltrane Plays The Blues” and there was something else, and we did those in the same week.
JazzUSA: And the result was that by the time some of those records came out, Coltrane was in a whole different place as a live performer.
MT: Yeah, he was moving quickly, constantly developing (laughs) evolving. He was an amazing individual, a major force in our music.
JazzUSA: And you said you couldn’t wait to go to work every night. Was it different every night?
MT: Yes it was. You didn’t know what to expect. It was very exciting.
JazzUSA: Yeah, but when folk who were expecting to hear the famous version of “My Favorite Things,” and it was a big success at the time, heard something different when they heard Coltrane live.
MT: Well, we tried to keep that in character in terms of the melody, because we knew a lot of people really wanted to hear it. I mean we were getting three and four request a night for that song. We’d say ‘we just played it last set,” and they’d say ‘well we want to hear it.” (laughs) But within the solo context, it would be different every time we played it back, but we tried to keep some semblance of it.
JazzUSA: By the time it came out, he was on his way to Impulse Records and took music to another place. But also during that time, you got a chance to start making your own solo records on Impulse. After that you did time with Blue Note, then spent most of the 70’s with Milestone. But then something happened where you became like this ultimate free agent. I admire the way you handle them and I think it’s your stature in music that allows you not to let record companies dictate to McCoy Tyner.
MT: There’s nothing wrong with having a home. I had a home with those record companies you just mentioned but the thing is I feel now I have to be encouraged to sign a long term contract. But it’s really not something I look forward to right at the moment. I like to free-lance. But there’s nothing wrong, if things were proper, I’d sign a long term deal, as long as it’s not too long.
JazzUSA: But there are some advantages in being that free agent.
MT: Yes there are many advantages, because what you do is have a project and you see who’s interested and you see whether or not they can meet the demands of the project in terms of budget. So there are a few concerns but the main thing is if someone is willing to rise to the occasion and take care of everything that needs to be taking care of, then it can happen.
JazzUSA: And like I said, it’s your stature that pretty much allows that to happen, because you tour whether or not a record company has something new on you out or not. How many dates do you do a year?
MT: That’s hard to figure out (laughs).
JazzUSA: At least 200.
MT: I do travel a lot. I enjoy what I do and people like it and that’s wonderful. I’m here to play for the people and me.
JazzUSA: I love the wide variety of formats that you use including the two pop records you’ve done. The first one, “Looking Out,” is one of the greatest mixtures of jazz and pop I’ve ever heard. I mean, Phyliss Hyman, Stanley Clarke?
MT: Don’t forget Carlos Santana.
JazzUSA: How can you? Then the Burt Bacharach record, I mean, it was okay for what it was, but nowhere near “Looking Out,” but now I hear there’s a chance you might doing a big Brazilian record, is that right?
MT: Well, I’ve talked to Gilberto Gil, but he’s into politics down in Bahia. I”ve been trying to reach him and I’m going to talk to him some more about it and we’ll see what happens.
JazzUSA: Anything else in the future, you can mention?
MT: There’s always something new, but I learned a long time ago that you don’t talk too much about your future project because then it’s out there and those ideas float around and…you know. I like to get it done, but I don’t like to talk about it.
For more information on McCoy Tyner’s new album
with the Latin All Stars
See our review from the April 1999 JazzUSA.