Steve Turre: Good Vibrations

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Steve Turre
By Lenny Gonzalez
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Steve Turre
By Lenny Gonzalez

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You wanna hear the dog sing?”

Steve Turre has just plunked down onto a favorite chair in the corner of his suburban Montclair, N.J., living room. Not a moment later his miniature greyhound, Jazz, jumps onto his lap. A frisky, tail-wagging little guy, Jazz is excited to see a visitor, and anxious to show off.

Turre reaches into a shirt pocket and retrieves a small, high-pitched whistle (does he carry it with him all the time, you have to wonder, or have they rehearsed this performance for the benefit of JazzTimes?). He blows into it, and on cue Jazz, tilting his muzzle upward, begins to wail, in a manner quite soulful and not entirely un-tuneful.

It doesn’t come as a surprise that the dog can belt one out. Turre (pronounced too-RAY), is not the only working artist in the household: His wife of nearly three decades, Akua Dixon, is an accomplished cellist, vocalist, conductor, composer and educator with a busy career of her own. And the couple’s 26-year-old daughter, Andromeda, who has been singing and dancing since she was a small child and was the last Raelette hired by Ray Charles, has just released her debut CD. Only her younger brother, Orion, so far remains immune, preferring video games. But give him time; you never know.

The Turre family’s proclivity toward music is in the blood. Turre’s parents, living in Nebraska at the time, met at a dance where Count Basie was performing. As soon as their son was old enough, after they’d all moved to Lafayette, Calif., just northeast of Oakland, they introduced Steve, as well as his brothers Mike and Peter, both of whom play professionally, to the music they loved.

“When I was little my parents took me to see Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton,” Turre says. “I remember how loud it was with all that brass. Just about when I started playing, [I saw] Ellington, with Ella as the guest vocalist and Coleman Hawkins as the guest soloist. I didn’t know what they were doing, but wow, talk about an impression! That’s what made me want to play this music.”

“This music” has been Turre’s life ever since. To show for it he’s got more awards for his trombone and seashell playing—most of the latter falling into categories such as Best Miscellaneous or Most Unusual Instrument—than he has wall space in his basement music room on which to display them. Chances are his newest album, Rainbow People, released on HighNote Records in May, will bring in a few more.

“I’m extremely happy with this record,” says Turre after Jazz settles down. “I feel that it’s one of my best efforts, creatively. What makes the record bear repeated listens is that everybody is on the same wavelength; it’s a collective effort. I’ve been able to reach a little further and build on my experiences from the past and at the same time try to stretch myself and reach forward.”

Those experiences include collaborations with a virtual who’s-who of jazz that covers the past four decades. “I’ve been blessed,” says Turre. “I got to play with Dexter Gordon and Jackie McLean, Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba, Tito Puente and Oscar D’León and Mongo [Santamaria] and Manny Oquendo and Celia Cruz. I got to play with Art Blakey and Max Roach and Jack DeJohnette. One time when I was in Boston with Rahsaan [Roland Kirk], Papa Jo Jones came and sat in with us—I got to play one tune with him. I also played with Philly Joe Jones, and Elvin Jones too.”

Turre laughs at his own account of keeping up with the Joneses, then adds, “I know there’s some I’ve forgotten.”

He could, if he weren’t being so modest, also have name-dropped Ray Charles (who gave Turre his first big break, hiring him for his band in 1972, later guesting on Turre’s In the Spur of the Moment album), McCoy Tyner, Pharoah Sanders, Cassandra Wilson, Herbie Hancock, Dizzy Gillespie, Cedar Walton, Regina Carter, James Moody, the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, Van Morrison, Archie Shepp, Jon Faddis, Santana, Horace Silver, Lester Bowie and Turre’s personal trombone hero, J.J. Johnson—not to mention two decades plus as a member of the Saturday Night Live house band.

But there’s one artist whose impact on Turre hovers over Rainbow People: Woody Shaw. Following Turre’s 1972 stint with Charles, it was Shaw who was responsible for Turre’s induction into the jazz master class known as Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. Turre also worked with Shaw on several of the heralded trumpeter’s albums, from the mid-’70s until Shaw’s 1989 death. “I’m drawing on the wonderful times I had with Woody on this record,” says Turre. “I know conceptually that had a big impact on me.”

Two direct connections to Shaw on the album come in the form of pianist Mulgrew Miller and alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett; like Turre, both played with Shaw. But Turre, who produced the album, didn’t bring those two players in on Rainbow People for the sake of nostalgia. More important was a shared sense of purpose—all of the participants understood what Turre wanted to say with the record.

For the album, Turre recruited Sean Jones, the young trumpeter and flugelhorn player, who alternates with Garrett throughout, except on the finale, “Para el Comandante,” where they double up. Bassist Peter Washington worked previously with Turre in the Jazz Messengers (Mulgrew and Washington go all the way back with Turre to his debut album, 1987’s Viewpoint). And sitting on the drum stool is firebrand Ignacio Berroa, like Turre a veteran of Dizzy Gillespie’s United Nation Orchestra. Percussionist Pedro Martinez sits in on the previously mentioned closing track.

To say the musicians clicked is an understatement. “We did the whole record in one day between noon and 6:30,” says Turre. “Four of the tracks were first takes, one was three takes, and the rest were two takes. When you’re playing with musicians on this level you just go and play. I have a wonderful rapport with all the people on this record. They’re all masters, bandleaders in their own right. I feel that when you make a record, it’s for history. It’s got to represent your life’s work when you’re dead and gone. So I don’t make a record just for the money and just for my friends. I make a record to make the music the best that it possibly can be. I was fortunate enough to get the people on this recording to do that.

“It’s about chemistry,” he adds. “It’s about sound. It’s about blend, about the rhythmic concept, the harmonic concept, about openness. Yet at the same time respect for the traditions, someone who can stretch but is not scared to play the blues and is not too hip to swing.”

Swing it does, in several different directions, from blues to ballads to bop, greasy funk and of course the torrid Latin grooves that have always found their way into Turre’s music. Six of the nine tracks on the album are Turre originals, among them “Brother Ray,” a tribute to Turre’s early employer; “Midnight in Madrid,” which showcases the young Jones tearing the place up; and the easy-flowing “Forward Vision.” The interpretations are a breakneck take on Charlie Parker’s “Segment”; “Cleopatra’s Needle” by Steve Kirby, a bassist who has worked with Turre in the past; and McCoy Tyner’s reflective “Search for Peace,” a song that, says Turre, ties in with the implied message of the title track: unity, harmony and all those good things. The album may be all instrumental, but for Turre it makes an unambiguous statement about the time in which the music was created and reflects the national mood.

“This country being the biggest economic power in the world is a spearhead for a lot of things,” he says. “But I think the whole world is ready for a change, not just America. America is the great economic power in the world but it definitely is not, in my book, a spiritual force in the world. There’s too much hypocrisy going on. They say one thing and do another. I think the people are waking up to that.”

The spiritual component of Turre’s music may not always be so evident upon listening as it’s not a forced issue, but it becomes more apparent upon hearing the artist discuss the methodology behind his composition and performance—why he prefers acoustic instrumentation, for example—and after seeing the Buddhist altar that occupies a corner of the Turre living room and the tranquil garden in the yard. Soft-spoken and thoughtful, Turre takes his time to consider his words before they come out, measuring them as carefully as a riff he’s about to blow.

“I used to play with Hugh Masekela for a while,” he says, “and he told me that when he was coming up the elders told him that a musician had a responsibility. He said, ‘Well, what is that?’ They said a musician is like a doctor; you’re supposed to make people feel better. I feel that acoustic music is more healing to the body, to the mind and to the spirit. When the music gets so loud that it makes your ears ring and makes your internal organs shake, it’s actually damaging your body. And that’s certainly not healing.

“As the years go by I’m less and less attracted to vibrations that damage my body than I am to vibrations that heal my body. So I’ve made a concerted effort that I do not want to contribute any vibrations to the planet that will damage someone’s body. I don’t care how much money there is to be made. It’s not an issue with money for me or getting over or being popular. It’s just what I think is right.”

Trombone came easily to Steve Turre. He chose it in the eighth grade after seeing a picture of a marching band. “I had a knack for it,” he says. “I learned a tune the first day, called ‘Sweet Sue (Just You).’” He grew up exposed to all of the styles a young Mexican-American kid in the Bay Area would hear in the ’60s—salsa, mariachi, funk, rock—but it was jazz that drew him in. “Louis Armstrong,” he says. “When I started out I played New Orleans traditional first: ‘When the Saints Go Marching In,’ ‘Muskrat Ramble,’ ‘Bourbon Street Parade.’ It wasn’t until I was in high school that someone gave me a J.J. Johnson record. That turned me around! I was blown away.”

Turre picked up gigs early in his pro career, and by the early ’70s he was on the road with Charles and Kirk. It was Kirk who introduced Turre to his second instrument, the seashell, one of humankind’s oldest music machines.

“Sometimes he’d just blow one note on it and circular breathe and hold it for a long time till the drunks in the club would shut up and then he’d play a ballad,” says Turre. “I loved the tonal quality of it. I thought it was very healing, very peaceful, and I was attracted to it. He let me blow his shell and, boy, it rung my bell. So I went and got one, and that was 1970. Over the years it kind of developed to what I’m doing now.”

What Turre is doing now, and has been throughout his career, is integrating the conches into his overall sound—he plays them at gigs and on record—and, on occasion, putting down the ’bone to spotlight them. In 1992, he released the album Sanctified Shells, one of the most perennially popular entries in his discography, and he’s led the Sanctified Shells Choir steadily, in addition to his various quartets, quintets and sextets.

“It wasn’t something that I figured out just to be different,” says Turre. “It’s a different color. I like, in my music, lots of different colors. So it’s an extension of the trombone. It’s the root of brass. It goes back before written history. Ancient people played shells.”

Turre’s collection of shells—acquired in his travels, not by combing beaches but rather shops and markets—is sizable enough that it occupies a good deal of real estate in his basement. He carries about a half dozen to his regular gigs, packed snugly in customized cases, and as many as 25 to a Sanctified Shells date. Various sizes and shapes, nature has already tuned them to different keys, but Turre still has plenty of work to do when he finds one he likes.

“I’ve got tons of them that I haven’t even made into instruments yet,” he says, “but what I do when I find one is to cut the tip of the shell off, for me the size of my trombone mouthpiece—if I was a trumpet player it would be smaller, like a trumpet mouthpiece. Then you knock out the central core, file it down. If there are still any sharp areas or thin areas I put some acrylic in there and build it up so it’s like a rim on the brass mouthpiece, so I won’t physically injure my lip. Then I get extra fine sandpaper and sand it down till it’s smooth and comfortable. Then you just go to town.

“You produce the sound on the shell the same way you would on a trombone or a trumpet or a tuba. It’s like a brass instrument. You vibrate your lips to produce the sound.”

Now, with Rainbow People finished, and a tour unlikely due to the musicians’ busy individual schedules, Turre is planning out his next venture: He’ll be teaching jazz trombone and small ensemble at Juilliard; the school announced his appointment this spring. Turre previously spent two decades on the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music doing the same.

“The students are great,” he says. “They’re hungry to learn.”

What he’d really like to see taught in music schools, though, is rhythm. When it’s suggested to him that some people just don’t have it, Turre fervently disagrees. “I don’t think some people will allow themselves to have rhythm,” he says, “but everybody’s heart beats, and that’s a rhythm. Maybe if you’re awake and nervous your breathing can be a little irregular and shallow, but when you’re asleep you breathe slowly and regularly. Everything in nature is steady rhythm. I really disagree with the Western concept that man is separate from nature and above it, and nature is there to serve man. I really feel that we are part of nature, and part of this planet, and that’s why we should respect the planet and quit exploiting the people and the planet.

“Rhythm, you can’t just learn academically and think you have it, ’cause then it doesn’t groove. You’ve gotta feel it. It’s like a language, a person-to-person communication. It’s gotta be in your bones. It’s a dance. I’ve had students quit me because they didn’t want to deal with that. But I’m with Duke Ellington: It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got … a groove. What does it got then? Just notes.”

Originally published in October 2008

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