Mark Turner: Road to Recovery
In the split second that he saw his left index and middle finger dangling, tenor saxophonist Mark Turner must’ve thought his very promising career had ended. “I work in my house with power saws and I was cutting wood for the fireplace,” he explains. “Sometimes the saw takes the wood into it … it’s just very powerful. And my hand went with the wood. The saw cut the tendons and nerves as well. It didn’t actually hit the bone but it was right there, so it severed them completely.”
The first doctor he saw at the emergency room on Nov. 5 of last year was somewhat dubious about the prospect of Turner regaining the use of his fingers. An orthopedic surgeon had a more optimistic prognosis—six to eight months and he’d be back in the saddle again. “I didn’t touch the sax for two months after the surgery,” says Turner. “For the first month I did physical therapy twice a week, then once a week for the second month. I did some acupuncture, too. And I had to do certain exercises for the first three months, every two hours, all day. After two months I started fingering the sax five minutes every few days and three months after surgery I began practicing maybe two hours every few days.”
By the end of February, less than four months after his surgery, Turner was back on the bandstand, performing at the Village Vanguard in pianist Edward Simon’s quartet. The following month he played a weeklong engagement at Birdland with Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava, pianist Stefano Bollani, bassist Ben Street and drummer Paul Motian, in support of Rava’s new CD, New York Days (ECM). And in early April, Turner joined the members of his freewheeling collective Fly (bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard) for a weeklong engagement at Jazz Standard to celebrate the release of their extraordinary ECM debut, Sky & Country.
During all these gigs, Turner could be seen alternately flexing his fingers and making a fist whenever he wasn’t playing. “I have to keep them going because they get stiff,” he explains. “I have to keep them limber so they work.”
While he appeared to play with the same effortless fluidity, daring intervallic leaps and remarkable command of the altissimo register that have been Turner signatures since his 1998 self-titled debut for Warner Bros., he is not yet back in peak playing form.
The same single-minded determination that allowed Turner to very thoughtfully and methodically forge his own unique vocabulary on the instrument—one that owes more to Warne Marsh and Lennie Tristano than to earlier towering influences John Coltrane and Joe Henderson—has been a key to his comeback. “It’s never going to be all the way back,” he says of his injured left hand. “I’m not going to be able to make a full fist, but I’m definitely on the road to recovery and it gets better and my hand gets stronger every day. My technique is a lot more specific now. I don’t have the leeway that I used to. There are certain things I have to do; otherwise, I can’t play certain passages. So I have to learn how to play flat-fingered. But it’s OK. It makes it even more intense.”
Both Sky & Country and Rava’s New York Days were recorded around the same time last year (February), at the same studio (Avatar in Manhattan), using the same engineer (James Farber). Both ECM projects were, of course, produced by Manfred Eicher, yet they have distinctly different sonic characteristics. The Rava recording utilizes a lot more reverb in the mix than the Fly recording, though Sky & Country is actually a “wetter” mix than Fly’s previous outing, 2004’s self-titled debut on Savoy Jazz. As drummer Ballard notes, “The presence of the drums is really in your face on the new one. If you compare it to our first record it doesn’t sound anything like it at all. There’s a very strong, very robust sound to the whole record. It’s close and you hear detail, but with the reverb it kind of spreads a little bit more than the first record.”
On Ballard’s kinetic “Lady B” and his funk-laden title track, Turner’s evocative “Anandananda” and long-form composition “Super Sister,” or Grenadier’s spacious meditation “CJ” and his swinging “Transfigured,” the freewheeling collective demonstrates uncanny chemistry. Onstage together at Jazz Standard, whether they were running down the elegant and restrained “Fly Mr. Freakjar” or burning their way through John Coltrane’s “Satellite” (a blistering romp based on “How High the Moon”), their approach was intimate and conversational from bar to bar. And their roles shifted easily from tune to tune.
“There’s some pieces where I play just melodies on the drums and then Larry plays more of a function of the rhythmic element,” says Ballard. “And Mark can assume that role of comping, as he did on the gig the other night behind my drum solo on ‘Satellite,’ just offering a bit of a push in there. The moment was calling for that and he answered.”
“On certain tunes, the bass is supplying the more fundamental rhythmic thing and then Jeff is coloring against it,” adds Grenadier. “The focus is always shifting so that the person who is commandeering any particular aspect of the music is always moving around the band.” They’ve had quite a lot of time to develop their musical relationships. “Jeff and I probably first played together in 1982 at a Jamey Aebersold camp,” says Grenadier. “And then Mark and I first played together in 1984 at a California All-State Jazz Band concert at the Monterey Jazz Festival. So we definitely have a long history.”
The first time all three played together was at a 1991 jam session at the West Side loft where Grenadier and Ballard were living. “Larry knew Mark from Berklee,” recalls Ballard, “and so he asked him to come by and play. And it clicked right away.”
The first time the trio recorded together was a track for a 2000 compilation album called Originations, executive produced by Chick Corea to showcase the individual members of his Origin octet. Ballard had been the drummer of Origin since joining in 1997, and for this session (the track “Beat Street”) he recruited Turner and Grenadier and billed it as the Jeff Ballard Trio.
Over the years there have been working situations where two of the three members of Fly might overlap in one band. Ballard and Turner, for instance, played together in Guillermo Klein’s Los Guachos in the late ’90s and later put in several years together in guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel’s band. Says Ballard of Turner, “When I first heard Mark play long ago he was absorbing everything piece by piece, and really not sounding like himself at all. At first he sounded like Trane, then he sounded just like Joe Henderson. And then, suddenly—bam!—he started coming out. He and Kurt developed this great language together and it was really something different.”
Says Turner, “At a certain point I just decided there were certain things I need to do. And it wasn’t so much, ‘I need to find myself.’ I just wanted to have more fun with music and learn how to improvise. I had acquired all this other vocabulary from other people—Trane and Joe Henderson—and it wasn’t fun anymore. So I just went on this search to figure out how can I really learn to truly improvise and I just devised all these different ways to practice. I started to figure out what are the nuts and bolts of music and I came up with some techniques of my own. And eventually it came out to be whatever it is I am now.”
Originally published in August/September 2009