Clip: McCoy Tyner
Sunday, June 4, 2006
McCoy Tyner is 67 years old, and no one tells him he has to practice the piano.
"Music is not an obsession with me," he says by phone from his
apartment on the East Side of Manhattan. "I just want to live life and
see what life tells me, as opposed to sitting down at the piano all
Tyner sits down at the piano more than enough. He has translated what
life has told him into music over the course of dozens of albums and
thousands of live gigs going back to 1959, when he made his
professional debut with the Art Farmer-Benny Golson Jazztet. A year
after that, he joined saxophonist John Coltrane's quartet, and
basically paved the road that most post-bebop jazz pianists followed,
and still do.
Tyner's playing can be volcanic, but in conversation he is soft-spoken
and conveys nothing so much as a profound sense of equanimity: He's at
peace with the universe ... with maybe a little assist from caffeine.
"I live in a great city -- maybe the best city in the world," he says
in a slightly raspy voice. "I get up every day and go outside to get
some air. I like to go to Starbucks -- there are a lot of Starbucks
around here. They make good coffee. ... I enjoy and savor life. I hear
things, and maybe I can compose a little."
Nothing too complicated. When he needs to work, the gigs are there, as
befits one of jazz's greatest living musicians. He's fond of
performing in the Bay Area, where his annual two-week residencies at
Yoshi's, now 12 years running, are as anticipated as any of the year's
jazz events. This year, for the first time, Tyner will be taking his
trio -- bass player Charnett Moffett and drummer Eric Kamau Gravatt --
to the Wine Country to headline the Healdsburg Jazz Festival. In its
eighth year, the festival, which concludes next Sunday with Tyner, has
become one of the gems of the Northern California jazz scene, cleverly
programmed throughout the pastoral Sonoma County town, with a final
weekend wallop outdoors at two plush vineyards.
The bill for next weekend includes the Heath Brothers Tribute to Percy
Heath on Friday night, and singer Mark Murphy, bassist Charlie Haden's
Quartet West and drummer Billy Hart's trio on Saturday.
Tyner grew up in Philadelphia, where he began classical training at
age 13 and after a few years formed an R&B band called the
Houserockers. Later, he started playing jazz, listening to some of the
professionals who came through town. Two locals, the piano-playing
brothers Bud and Richie Powell, lived around the corner from Tyner.
Bud was the greatest of the bebop pianists, but Richie's promise was
cut short when he died in a car crash along with the great trumpeter
Clifford Brown in 1956.
"When Richie went on the road with Clifford Brown and Max Roach's
band, Bud would move into his apartment," Tyner says. Bud Powell,
already famous by then, was plagued by mental illness. "He would
wander around the neighborhood. He really needed somebody to take care
of him. Bud would come around my mother's beauty shop, where the piano
was. ... To have one of your musical heroes move around the corner was
Tyner says Powell was his main influence, along with Art Tatum and
"When I was 17 or 18, I would sneak up to New York to hear Monk play
in the Village," he says. "I had an aunt up there and I would stay
Tyner also met Coltrane around this time, but wasn't invited into his
band until 1960.
"He must have heard something in my playing ... I don't know," Tyner
says. "I was hearing something different, and he was searching. He
recognized me as someone who could accompany him. He would tell me,
'Keep moving, keep moving' -- harmonically, he meant. He didn't
restrict me, either. He was very encouraging that way because Miles
(Davis) had given him that license. He'd take those long solos.
Searching. Miles liked that. And John let me take those long,
searching solos. He liked that. It was such a free environment, it
gave me a chance to develop quickly."
In this classic quartet, which also featured Jimmy Garrison on bass
and Elvin Jones on drums, Tyner was like a miner compressing coal into
diamonds that Coltrane then mined himself to fuel his kaleidoscopic
saxophone solos. Tyner left few harmonic avenues unexplored, which is
why he became so influential to other pianists.
Tyner began putting out his own records in 1963 while still with
Coltrane, whom he left in 1965 when the saxophonist began to abandon
harmony altogether. The pianist has since led about 70 albums, winning
his fifth Grammy for his most recent, 2004's "Illuminations." He's
covered everything from ballads to Latin jazz to big band, and he's an
undisputed master of all. He's got a new album cooking, but won't talk
about it yet. "I don't want to divulge anything at the moment," he
says. "It wouldn't be appropriate."
After Healdsburg, Tyner faces a full schedule of summer dates in the
United States, Canada and Europe. Don't expect him to retire any time
"It's good," he says, "to be useful."
HEALDSBURG JAZZ FESTIVAL:
Various artists all week, concluding with the McCoy Tyner Trio at 3
p.m. next Sun. at Rodney Strong Vineyards, 11455 Old Redwood Highway,
Healdsburg. $45. (707) 433-4644, www.healdsburgjazzfestival.org.