They won't need to turn on the lights at the Kennedy Center on Sunday. So many jazz stars are scheduled to appear at the Kool Jazz Festival that most of the electricity can be safely directed to the sound system that will showcase an astounding range of stylists: veterans like Teddy Wilson, Dave Brubeck and John Lewis; obscure legends like Art Hodes and Dorothy Donegan; and newcomers like Amina Claudine Myers. And these are just some of the pianists!
In the midst of them stands a giant, McCoy Tyner, who with Cecil Taylor, ranks as the foremost pianist of the '70s. The soft-spoken Tyner, 45, has always been one to let his fingers do the talking, initially with the John Coltrane Quartet and later as a soloist and leader of his own groups. "It's funny," he says, "I started recording when I was 20 years old, and I've made over 100 albums. People come up to me and say, 'Man, I've been listening to your records since I was 15.' That's when I look to Eubie Blake."
Tyner's nod to the 97-year-old Blake is affirmation of his own concerns with the tradition and integrity of jazz and the will to perform and "survive in a society that's not artistically prone." For instance, while many of his peers moved to electronic keyboards in the '70s, Tyner continued to develop his vibrant and unique harmonic and percussive style on the acoustic piano. As his reputation grew, Tyner also became a symbol of commercial integrity, a man who refused to bend to commercial extremes.
But Tyner, who early in his career was called "Bud Monk" in honor of two major influences (Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk), is stepping into the '80s with a vengeance. The appropriately titled "Look Out," an album due for June release, teams him up with rock guitarist Carlos Santana, fusion bassist Stanley Clarke and singer Phyllis Hyman; there are even two Tyner-penned vocals.
"What we're dealing with is a departure," Tyner admits, already hearing the howls of jazz purists. "I think I've found a way to combine accessibility and quality; there's a way to do that and still make a nice musical statement. Compromise? No, it's a meeting of diverse musical personalities. Stanley and Phyllis both came out of jazz backgrounds, Carlos from Latin rock. It's different, but everybody retains their identity." On one intro, Tyner even dabbled with synthesizer. "First time I've touched one," he insists with a laugh. Otherwise, he plays the old acoustic: "I just don't want to get crystallized within a certain period."
To soothe the purists, Tyner confirms that he's about to record a solo album of Thelonious Monk tunes, insisting that the two albums are "not extremes, just mirrors of my varied personality." That personality has emerged full-force since his stint with the classic Coltrane Quartet, the most influential jazz combo of the '60s.
After leaving Coltrane, Tyner began a single-minded expansion of his instrument's potential. First, he developed both hands equally. "I was left-handed when I was young, used to eat with my left hand all the time," Tyner recalls. "Then I began to use both hands for eating and so on. I said to myself at one point 'I'd sure like to have strong independence.' Then it became a contest!" The result was a volcanic orchestral interplay between the two hands. Tyner's methodology became control, communication, maturity, a mix of intellectual and emotional fury that some wrote off as "macho keyboardmanship" and others understood as the mark of one of the most self-sufficient soloists since Art Tatum.
Having come to terms with the parameters of the acoustic piano, Tyner has in recent years increasingly explored composing and orchestration. It's a "period of expansion," he explains, saying that while orchestrating is not "mystifying, it is another instrument."
It's also an alternative to sliding into the vacuity of electronics, though he insists "the door is open there. Remember, "a lot of instruments--electric piano, synthesizers--weren't even invented when I was coming up," Tyner points out. "I still feel there's a lot of room for growth. I am trying to extract the good of today's music and see if I can make a marriage of concepts."