Sitting down for an interview with a musical icon can be a daunting task. But when that icon is McCoy Tyner, all nervousness melts once he answers the phone and introduces himself. Mr. Tyner’s graciousness and accommodation is even more impressive considering that when this writer phoned him, he had just completed inquiring about some lost luggage from a tour of Italy.
I had the chance to talk to Mr. Tyner about his upcoming Telarc release Land of Giants
, which sees his working trio (Charnett Moffett, bass; and Eric Harland, drums) augmented by longtime Tyner associate Bobby Hutcherson, his approach to songwriting and music, and- rather predictably- his time playing with John Coltrane’s classic quartet. Mr. Tyner also used the interview as a forum to dispel some urban legends. JazzReview
: Could you discuss how recording Land of Giants
came about? McCoy Tyner
: Well, Bobby and I go way back, as some people are aware. And I have been playing as a trio with Charnett and Eric for quite some time now, but this band is also is transition JazzReview
: Your previous trio, with Avery Sharpe, was around for a long time, correct? McCoy Tyner
: That’s right. Avery was with me for twenty years, so there was a set way of working with him that isn’t there with Eric and Charnett yet. They’re enthusiastic, and it is great to play with both of them when they are free from other commitments. When we do get to play, it’s fun. We’re just getting he kinks ironed out now, and I think that shows on the record. JazzReview
: How does having a second melodic instrument in the band, like Bobby’s vibes, affect your approach to songwriting and arranging the songs? McCoy Tyner
: Bobby and I phrase our melodies very similarly. Again, we’ve known each other for a long time and it helps when you play similarly. It’s a wonderful feeling and it makes the arrangement process, especially, easier for me. JazzReview
: In the press release for Land of Giants
, Elaine Martone [the producer] says that the seed for the album was planted by a sensational review in The Guardian
, of a concert that this same quartet performed at Barbican in England. Did you see that review and did it inspire you to get this band into the studio? McCoy Tyner
: I don’t worry about things like (critical reviews). When you’ve been playing music as long as I have and are as established as I am, you can’t worry about what someone wrote.
I seldom read reviews. As far as the review in The Guardian
, I was told about it. While it’s nice, I think it’s more important for what I
feel about a performance or a recording, because I’m creating this. JazzReview
: What about the title of the album? Is it a nod to [Coltrane’s] Giant Steps
, as Elaine said in the press release? McCoy Tyner
: Not really. Elaine came up with a list of titles, and I liked Land of Giants
. It sounded good. I wasn’t thinking about anything else when we were recording. It’s a good title. When it works, it works. JazzReview
: Do you find your songwriting process to be even more introspective as you grow older? McCoy Tyner
: Oh, yeah. I’m constantly performing and growing, and my writing and playing should add up to what I am. Music is a wonderful tool of expression. Especially this music. Jazz has a wonderful personality in the hands of a good performer, and I hope that I’m expressing my personality clearly whenever I play. JazzReview
: How do you decide whether your music fits in a solo, trio, quartet, or big band setting? McCoy Tyner
: Each song is different. Songwriting, especially when you have done it as long as I have, is a cumulative process. Today is different from yesterday. Different things happen from day-to-day. We have a bank of experience in our head, heart, whatever. It’s a musical journey, like life is a journey. A CD is like a concept-like a play; or a suite with movements. There should be a connection there between the music and the player.
I enjoy playing solo or with a trio. All the elements are interesting. I love playing with the big band. But I also want the variety and setting in choosing how I play my music. JazzReview
: Most new jazz listeners are familiar with you through your association with John Coltrane in the early to mid-60’s. What stands out the most about those years in the Coltrane quartet? McCoy Tyner
: I met John when I was seventeen; we met in the mid-50’s. He was on sabbatical from Miles Davis’ Quintet, then he rejoined Miles. John said that when he left Miles’ band that he wanted me to play in his band. It just took him a long time to leave [laughs].
John’s grandfather was a minister. He also played music in church. So he had an evident spirituality about him. But what I was most impressed with about John was his diligence. He was like a scientist in a laboratory. He was always looking. It was like he was on a mission. John knew what he wanted, if not always how to get there. But he always stayed on his path. And that’s what I remember most. His diligence was most influential on my style. JazzReview
: After you left Coltrane, there were some lean years. You worked as a sideman for various musicians, correct? McCoy Tyner
: Yes. I went through a series of survival skills back then. JazzReview
: While doing some research for this interview, I had read that you worked as a sideman for Ike and Tina Turner. McCoy Tyner
: No, never did. JazzReview
: Really? McCoy Tyner
: Yes. Azar Lawrence (saxophonist in Mr. Tyner’s first popular quartet) played with Ike and Tina Turner, and I think he gave an interview once that got turned around into me playing with them. Believe me, if I played with Ike and Tina I would’ve remembered that [laughs]. JazzReview
: Well, I’m glad we could clear that up! McCoy Tyner
: Well, while we’re here, I should make another correction. I did not drive a cab in New York before starting to find some success in music. I thought about it, but I never went out and applied for a hack license. Like I said, I went through a series of survival skills back then. Around 1970, it changed and I got a contract with Milestone Records. I came through it, and I’m proud of it. JazzReview
: Do you have any advice for musicians who want to even make a reasonable living in the music industry? McCoy Tyner
: In this business, you’re challenged in so many directions. Not all of them are musical. Sometimes they are overbearing, the things you have to deal with. I’ve learned that you create your own success and you own changes. JazzReview
: Are there any plans to tour with Bobby and the trio? McCoy Tyner
: We did go to Europe last year and the album is a direct result of that tour. At this time, Eric has other commitments with Terrance Blanchard. Once those are done, we’ll see how it works out and try to get Bobby to play whenever possible.
Jazz Review would like to thank McCoy Tyner for agreeing to this interview and Telarc Records for arranging the interview.