A Jazzman’s Contemporary ‘Journey’ : Pop music: McCoy Tyner helped revolutionize jazz. Now, he’s looking at rap music as a possible element for a future big-band album.
When McCoy Tyner tells you he’s thinking of including a rapper on his next big-band album, a reality-check seems in order. This is one musician who is not readily acknowledged as a funky fly guy; the McCoy Tyner of legend is a pianist of knotted brow, Muslim spirituality and cosmic album titles, a resolutely serious improviser whose work with John Coltrane’s quartet helped revolutionize jazz in the early 1960s.
At 54, however, Tyner appears to be in a more earthy phase of his life. Dressed in a double-breasted blue suit, white shirt, black tie and black patent leather loafers, with his hair slicked back into a ponytail and aviator shades on, he looks quite the man-about-Midtown as he strolls toward lunch at the Omni Park Hotel here, dispensing greetings to various doormen and salesmen en route.
This is Tyner’s old neighborhood, of sorts; he lived in a room at the Omni Hotel for three years during one of those itinerant phases that characterize the musician’s life. And as for his interest in rap and his professed fondness for those funky divas En Vogue and SWV, Tyner evidently enjoys a social life that helps him stay abreast of pop trends.
“Certain people keep me informed--I won’t go into details,” he says, a husky laugh creasing his eyes into slits. Behind Tyner’s serene face and courtly manners, you catch an occasional glimpse of mischief.
This new equanimity hasn’t come at the expense of creativity. On the bandstand with his trio, which opens tonight at Catalina’s Bar & Grill in Los Angeles, Tyner can still summon forth a churning thunderstorm of chords that break into splashes and cascades of notes. As a recording artist he is also in a remarkably fertile period. Last year alone he released the solo piano album “Soliloquy,” the small-band record “44th Street Suite,” a collaboration with saxophonist David Murray called “Special Quartet” and a big-band recording, “The Turning Point,” which won a Grammy.
The fact that all these records were on different labels does not seem to bother Tyner, who has been without a record contract for several years. He has already finished “Journey,” a new big-band recording that Verve Records will release in January, and he is negotiating with Blue Note for a new installment in his series of solo piano recordings with that label.
“Exclusivity is something I tend to shy away from unless I’m being compensated for it,” he says. “Everyone wants to sign you up but when it comes to the bottom line, it doesn’t always add up. I sort of sectioned it off: One label has the big band, the other has the solo part.”
That hasn’t always been the case, and Tyner is old enough to have known jazz in its most fruitful and fallow periods. Born in Philadelphia in 1938, he served his apprenticeship as a teen-age rhythm and blues player and a young gun in Philly’s hothouse jazz scene of the 1950s, jamming regularly with trumpeter Lee Morgan, bass player Reggie Workman and veteran be-bopper pianist Bud Powell. Then at 21, Tyner was thrown into the flux of the next great upheaval in jazz when another Philadelphia-bred player, John Coltrane, recruited him for his quartet alongside drummer Elvin Jones and bass player Jimmy Garrison.
Coltrane and Tyner had met four years previously, when Coltrane was back in Philadelphia on hiatus from the Miles Davis quintet. Having kicked heroin in the late 1950s, Coltrane was turning to Eastern mysticism and exploring ideas that clicked immediately with Tyner, who became a Muslim at 18. The records they made from 1960-65--particularly “My Favorite Things,” “Meditations” and “A Love Supreme"--stretched jazz soloing into a realm of spiritual rumination that snapped the patience of some critics and foreshadowed the arrival of the free-blowing sound.
“He was a very contemplative person, always thinking about something new,” says Tyner, who rarely talks in great detail about his days with Coltrane. “We were very close. He was like a big brother to me because we first met when I was 17. . . . We got along, got along conversationally, (but) there wasn’t a lot of talking about it technically. We just had a similar perspective on music. It wasn’t a thing you could verbalize.”
Eager to strike out on his own, Tyner left the group in 1965, just as Coltrane was heading into the atonal outer limits. But the next five years proved bruising, as jazz was swept aside by rock ‘n’ roll and Tyner struggled to find work. In an interview with Down Beat magazine several years ago, he recalled a long stretch barely sustained by sporadic royalty checks, unreleased recording sessions and sideman gigs with Ike and Tina Turner and Jimmy Witherspoon. At one time, he even gave people car rides for money to support his wife and children.
“It was tough, I must say,” recalls Tyner over lunch at the Omni Park Hotel. “I was contemplating driving a taxi for a while, but I didn’t do it. And I could have left the country, gone to Europe, but I didn’t do that either. . . . What it did teach me is that nothing’s a sure thing. Even if you reach a pinnacle in your career, it doesn’t mean you’re going to be there forever.”
As electric pianos and fusion music spread like a virus, Tyner refused to succumb to commercial exigencies and the drought broke in 1973 when his album “Sahara” was nominated for two Grammys and won the Down Beat critics award for record of the year. A deluge of recordings followed, as Blue Note dug up unreleased sessions like “Cosmos” and “Asante” while Tyner tackled ambitious projects like “Atlantis,” a double-album, and “Fly With the Wind,” which featured a 12-piece string section.
Apart from “Looking Out,” a critically unpopular contemporary jazz album recorded with guitarist Carlos Santana, the early 1980s marked the beginning of Tyner’s classicist period, as he pruned things back to their essence and formed a trio that allowed him to stretch out on a range of standards, ballads and some of his classic tunes from the 1960s. The music seemed to reflect his life; his kids had grown, his marriage had ended and spiritual matters no longer seemed so paramount.
Asked whether religion still plays a role in his work, Tyner’s hands come up. “Let’s not get into all that,” he demurs quickly, then attempts to answer the question from an oblique angle. “I think that art should be universal. I think all of us, if we think at all about where things are formed and put together, realize there’s some sort of supreme force. Even though I’m able to organize sound and come up with a song doesn’t mean I invented sound, you know what I mean?”
Initially, the McCoy Tyner Big Band was also a fairly traditional outfit. Formed in 1984, the 15-piece group didn’t record until a live date, “Uptown/Downtown,” was released on Milestone in 1989. Last year’s “The Turning Point,” despite its title, followed a similar format of standards (“Angel Eyes”), old Tyner tunes (“Fly With the Wind”) and new songs.
The band’s forthcoming album, “Journey,” finds it stretching into newer territory. Recorded over three days in May, it has a pronounced Latin feel on tunes like “Samba Dei Ber,” “Juanita” and “January in Brazil.” The latter song is a percussive romp, which features Tyner’s long-standing bass player, Avery Sharpe, picking up the electric bass for a fleet-fingered sprint into guitar-like high registers.
Asked about the track, Tyner mentions that he is hoping to develop more contemporary ideas on the next record. “Maybe I’ll have one rap tune there,” he muses, “because the concept of rap is not new. Scatting, y'know--when I grew up people used to do that on the corner. I want to do something like that but the music would be more sophisticated, for lack of a better word.”
Tyner has no ambitions to make the big band a full-time working operation, however. The logistics would be enormous, particularly given that the band is not signed to a label. During lunch an anecdote is mentioned about the grinding schedule Duke Ellington faced to keep his orchestra afloat: Ellington received the Medal of Freedom from President Richard Nixon at the White House one day in 1969, and the next night was playing an Army base in the sticks.
Tyner smiles, as if he has heard stories like this all his life. “In this business you become an expert at adapting,” he says with a nod. “You’re in a barn one day and the White House the next: playing for the cows and chickens, then playing to the President.”