Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Before & After With Mark Turner

The influences of a towering modern influence

Mark Turner
Mark Turner, Jazzhouse, Copenhagen Jazz Festival, 7-13

In September of 2014, Mark Turner released Lathe of Heaven, his sixth album as a leader, featuring a quartet of frequent collaborators: trumpeter Avishai Cohen, bassist Joe Martin and drummer Marcus Gilmore. It was his first project under his own name since 2001’s Dharma Days, but it would be wrong to call the 13-year interim a hiatus. In that time, the Brooklyn-based tenor saxophonist recorded three albums with Fly, his collective trio with drummer Jeff Ballard and bassist Larry Grenadier, and appeared as a sideman on albums by Billy Hart, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Aaron Goldberg, David Binney, Gilad Hekselman and many others.

Turner’s long absence out front also did little to diminish his outsize influence. At 49, his singular sound has echoed through a generation of younger saxophonists including Ben Wendel, Melissa Aldana and Noah Preminger, but his status as one of the leading contemporary tenor players belies a cool, gnomic composure and an eternal student’s humility. Turner has advanced tenor vocabulary, but his trademark lithe tone, angular chromaticism and motivic approach to improvisation have a well-established history.

Prior to helping shape the current tenor landscape, Turner internalized the work of saxophonists like Joe Lovano and George Garzone, as well as earlier exponents of narrative development such as Warne Marsh and Joe Henderson, a lineage that can be traced back to Lester Young. Beyond technical mastery of style and form, like the eponymous novel by Ursula K. Le Guin, Lathe of Heaven exhibits a fertile imagination that palpably informs Turner’s frequently mystical, almost novelistic solos.

Turner plans to return to the studio with the same quartet early in 2016. In addition to maintaining a busy touring schedule with bands led by trumpeters Tom Harrell and Ibrahim Maalouf and drummers Hart and Colin Stranahan, Turner is a voracious and perceptive listener on and off the bandstand, still finding time to transcribe solos by his favorite players. Several of those are included here in his first Before & After session with JazzTimes, conducted at Columbia University. Turner had worn out the grooves on many of the selected tracks while he was in college, and seemed transported to an earlier time. Even from his perch, Turner still has a thing or two to learn from the masters.

1. Lester Young & Coleman Hawkins

“I Can’t Get Started” (The Complete Jazz at the Philharmonic on Verve [1944-1949], Verve). Young, Hawkins, tenor saxophones; Buck Clayton, trumpet; Kenny Kersey, piano; Al McKibbon, bass; J.C. Heard, drums. Recorded in 1946.

BEFORE: This is so killing. Is it Lester and Teddy Wilson?

AFTER: It hurts! Did Hawk just come to sit in? Wow, that was so great. So all you needed to bring to complete the big four would be Don Byas and Ben Webster. I guess I’ve heard a fair amount of Lester in the middle ’40s, but here he still sounds like he did in ’39, ’40 or ’41. I’m not sure when the big change happened between then and the early ’50s. On that take, it sounds like earlier.

2. Joe Albany

“All the Things You Are” (The Right Combination, Riverside). Albany, piano; Warne Marsh, tenor saxophone; Bob Whitlock, bass.

Recorded in 1957.

BEFORE: I haven’t heard this one. Damn. I want to transcribe this-just the melody alone. My first guess is Warne and [pianist Sal Mosca].

AFTER: Now that I listen to it, that’s definitely not Sal. Sorry, Sal. I take that back. Prime Warne Marsh for sure-the way he plays the whole range of the instrument, especially the way he goes into the altissimo. There are other players who play in the altissimo, but listen to the timbre that he uses, the way that he accesses that part of the instrument. I don’t know if this is the best wording to use, but he relies on content as opposed to drama for the engagement of the musical statement. And then there’s the way that he feels. I don’t know if there’s any such thing as total improvisation, but I think Warne takes it pretty far, as far as he can take it, really flying by the seat of his pants while never completely losing it. He’s always right on the razor’s edge. That solo felt contained, but I also felt like my hair was on edge, like I was about to scream at the same time. I love that aspect of him, and that’s what I want.

3. Hank Mobley

“Remember” (Soul Station, Blue Note). Mobley, tenor saxophone; Wynton Kelly, piano; Paul Chambers, bass; Art Blakey, drums. Recorded in 1960.

BEFORE: I haven’t heard this in a while. It’s a great one. I was about to transcribe this a little while ago. I should go back and do it. Hank is in the same tradition as Lester Young. So many saxophone players came out of Lester Young. With Hank, the swing is right in the pocket, which is not easy to do. Sometimes I think about that solo on [Miles Davis’ 1961 recording of] “Someday My Prince Will Come,” where he plays and Trane plays. When I was in school, people would say, “Oh, Trane slayed Hank,” and I never felt that was true. It’s another expression that was equally valid, just on another aesthetic plane. He’s so relaxed it’s incredible. He never loses his composure, especially at that tempo, where that’s kind of easy to do. With a rhythm section like that it’s easy to feel like you need to push, but he sits right back in it like a Cadillac.

4. John Coltrane & Don Cherry

“Bemsha Swing” (The Avant-Garde, Atlantic). Coltrane, tenor saxophone; Cherry, cornet; Percy Heath, bass; Ed Blackwell, drums. Recorded in 1960.

BEFORE: It sounds like Trane, just from the melody. I think that’s Don Cherry but I’m not sure. I remember this. I used to have this record. It’s great. I remember when I listened to it in college. I haven’t listened to it since then. Ed Blackwell and Don Cherry had a thing somewhere else [the Ornette Coleman Quartet] and Trane was stepping into it. It’s interesting hearing how he navigated that. I always think of Blackwell, Cherry and Ornette as wide in terms of the way they access the music, and Trane seems to be very focused in the way he plays his lines, harmonically, his sound. Ornette’s [sound] is very wide for alto; it’s like open space, out in Texas, in the West, compared to Trane. In terms of matching sound, I would hear maybe Sonny [Rollins] in the ’60s; the way he played would match [the Coleman band] more than Trane does. Not that it’s good or bad, but they would be more together in their aesthetic.

5. Sonny Rollins

“East Broadway Run Down” (East Broadway Run Down, Impulse!). Rollins, tenor saxophone; Freddie Hubbard, trumpet; Jimmy Garrison, bass; Elvin Jones, drums. Recorded in 1966.

BEFORE: Damn! I haven’t heard this in a long time. Sonny Rollins. It sounds like Elvin on drums.

This is his last album before the second hiatus.

It’s one of the great, classic recordings and it probably influenced everybody in some way or another. I love all periods of Sonny, but I would say one of my favorites for different reasons is the middle ’60s. There’s this record, a bunch of live ones, my parents had one that I listened to in high school, and also the soundtrack to Alfie. His sound changed and I love it. It’s wide and focused and maybe a little bit dry. It’s just incredible narrative improvisation as opposed to his counterpart, Trane, at that time, who was also taking very long solos. They’re both storytelling, but Sonny feels more like a novelist and Trane is [taking a] journey to the top of a mountain and then coming back down with information to give us all. They’re two different paradigms, but both of them are necessary.

6. Wayne Shorter

“From the Lonely Afternoons” (Native Dancer, Columbia). Shorter, tenor saxophone, piano; David Amaro, guitar; Wagner Tiso, electric piano; Dave McDaniel, bass; Roberto Silva, drums; Milton Nascimento, guitar, vocals, composer. Recorded in 1974.

BEFORE: I haven’t heard this in a long time. This is Native Dancer. I used to love this record. Milton Nascimento, Airto [Moreira, who appears elsewhere on the album]. I just remember the incredible economy that Wayne has. He’s like Lester and Trane all in one guy. He’s a master of the low register. In the middle ’70s, Wayne’s sound is incredible. I think he’s playing a hard-rubber [Otto] Link mouthpiece; they call them “Early Babbitts.” Somebody else who I think played that setup, who I’m really digging right now, is Clifford Jordan, who did Glass Bead Games.

You’re talking about the 1974 album that includes the song “John Coltrane.”

[The ’60s are considered] prime Clifford, but I love him in the ’70s. In the ’80s and early ’90s, often, and maybe collectively, people felt that the ’70s were a wasted or dark period. But it was so fruitful! There weren’t as many mainstream swinging records, but there were so many great ones then-to me, some of the greatest. A lot of those guys who were young in the ’60s became even more mature and adventurous in the ’70s, like on Native Dancer, for example. Some of my favorite music came from the ’70s.

To read the rest of this story, purchase the issue in print or from the Apple Newsstand. Print and digital subscriptions are also available.

Originally Published