Legendary pianist and composer McCoy Tyner turns 70 today‚ December 11‚ 2008. It's a good reason to celebrate the incredible music that McCoy has given us‚ and continues to give us‚ during the course of his career.
I interviewed McCoy Tyner for the first time in 2005. (Read it here - Conversation with McCoy Tyner.) It was an incredible experience for me. I tried to explain it to people this way: When I hung up the phone with him‚ I felt the same way I would have if I had just gotten off the phone with Paul McCartney or Pete Townshend or Jimmy Page -- like I just spoke with a legendary musician who was part of one of the greatest and most influential quartets of all time. I've listened to everything I could find of that John Coltrane Quartet with McCoy on piano‚ Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums. Talk about understanding how profound the language of music is! Listening to that band is like listening to a higher form of communication; it's like they were instantly deep and in tune with each other. And then I heard McCoy Tyner's first record on Blue Note‚ The Real McCoy‚ and I was blown away. Then came Sahara and then Enlightenment‚ and so forth. And then this last September‚ another incredible work: Guitars.
I wanted to interview McCoy again for this release -- which sort of happened‚ but it was through a conference call with several other writers. The demand was high‚ and with the type of album he released‚ it should be. Not only is the record fantastic‚ but it features some of the most extraordinary players out there. His rhythm section is Ron Carter on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums -- great start‚ huh? And then the concept: playing with a bunch of unique and great guitarists. That experience was somewhat new to McCoy. He mentioned to another writer during the call that with John Coltrane's group they did a little bit of playing with Wes Montgomery‚ and he also mentioned how he composed "Señor Carlos" for his buddy‚ guitarist Carlos Santana. But he had never sat down and recorded with this type of focus on the piano and guitar.
Who are the guitar players? John Scofield‚ Bill Frisell‚ Derek Trucks‚ Marc Ribot and Béla Fleck (who's a banjoist‚ but close enough). Talk about doing it right. That should intrigue any music fan. But if that sounds like a lot of hype‚ that's certainly not what this music is about. It's about playing with equal space‚ it's about listening and it's about creating something fresh. No doubt‚ it's following McCoy's philosophy on making music.
While McCoy was talking with another writer about growing up in Philadelphia‚ he mentioned how fortunate he was to have great musicians taking him under their wing. That eventually led to a discussion of playing with Coltrane and the inclusions of "My Favorite Things" and "Greensleeves" on Guitars. McCoy said‚ "I loved playing those songs with John. He could take the simplest of melodies and songs and make a symbolic thing out of it! I had to keep my ears open because he would move around and modulate to a different key. John was a great leader that way. He'd give you plenty of space‚ but I learned a lot."
Going back and reading the interview I did with McCoy in 2005‚ it seems to represent how a lot of good jazz music works -- it's all about a conversation. Unfortunately‚ this conference call didn't get cooking the same way. I asked a few questions and the other people on the phone took their turn as well. It was fascinating and insightful‚ but just not as good as having a conversation one on one with the man. Nonetheless‚ here's my brief discussion with McCoy about Guitars.

What kind of breakthroughs did you have during the Guitars session‚ if any?
Well‚ conceptually it was great because everyone sounds different‚ and that gave it a twist. The age differences were there‚ too. But everybody sounded like themselves. That kind of variety is what we look for when we're making music‚ and I think this music reflects that.
Did you find any problems with the sessions? You have a lot of strong voices and strong music personalities on the record. Did you experience any too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen moments?
Well‚ I'll tell you‚ I like those cooks -- because that means everybody cooks a different dish. [laughter] And I'll take all of them! It was nice… I don't think there were any kind of super compromises going on. They knew they were recording with me‚ I knew I was recording with them‚ so I listened to some of their stuff. We sort of had a good marriage there. We weren't looking for differences; we were looking for similarities and conceptual blending. And if you give each guy a chance‚ then his musical personality will come through. And that's what you want to focus on.
I know you're doing some tour dates with Marc Ribot‚ and from listening to the album it sounds like you two did quite of bit of improvisational exploring together. What did he bring out of you‚ and what did you bring out of him?
Conceptually‚ we blended very well. I like to look at the way a musician converses and their personality‚ rather than having a person walk in the room and telling them to play like this or play like that. I learned over the years that you have to have equilibrium. You have to learn where to meet each other musically to create something interesting. And that's my belief.

"Passion Dance" - McCoy Tyner's Real McCoy

Here are some other State of Mind pieces on McCoy:
And here are some must-see videos of McCoy playing in different ensembles over the years. Take some time and enjoy these.

McCoy in 1972 with Sonny Fortune on sax‚ Calvin Hill on bass and Alphonse Mouzon drums
McCoy playing with Rahsaan Roland Kirk & Stanley Clarke in 1975
The trailer for McCoy's new DVD (and CD) - Guitars
McCoy playing a duet with saxophonist Joe Henderson