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Mark Turner: A Modern Saxophone Master

The saxophonist shows other sides of himself in an unvarnished conversation

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Mark Turner (photo: Robert Lewis/Courtesy of ECM Records)
Mark Turner (photo: Robert Lewis/Courtesy of ECM Records)

When you hear tenor saxophonist Mark Turner’s name in conversation, it seems to be frequently linked to the notions of mindfulness, precision, and fastidiousness. “That is a good thing … I think,” Turner says from Switzerland, in between a day’s Zoom lessons with students and a night’s gig with his ensemble. 

It also makes him contemporary creative music’s sharp dressed man, buttoned up but free, with a feel for the intergalactic in his composition and the spacy (albeit with a serrated edge) in his playing. Listen to his newest ECM album, Return from the Stars: He’s creating exploratory jazz with a vision that’s both open-ended and clear-cut.

So what does Turner do that isn’t so sharp and clean? 

“My social interactions,” the saxophonist says with a laugh. “I’m not too together on that, staying connected. I’m definitely the opposite of meticulous on that count. Very messy.” 

Luckily, his interactions with intelligent and equally diligent fellow improvisers have remained clear since at least his time as a sideman to Leon Parker (ref: 1994’s Above & Below). 

“I think attention to detail is important,” he continues. “Most of the artistic masters that I look to, in jazz and the European music continuum—even the visual art world and literature—pay great attention to every point, every component. That focus allows them to get deeper into their art form.”

Before he can get into further details of his detailing, though, Turner says a most unusual thing. “I’m not naturally talented. I have to study and pay extra attention to the craft in order to be able to credibly and inventively play music.”

He goes on to state that he’s been around people with “natural” talent, be it for math or music, and that his definition of engagement is not theirs. “They might work at it, whatever it is, a lot, but they can also do it at a credible level without working at it, and have been able to do so from a young age. That was not me. I have to be on it all the time.”

“I just don’t want to go that way, that blue way. I have to learn how to bring it in in a different way.”

Turner first got “on it” as a Southern California youth with music-loving parents who played their son a wealth of gospel, R&B, and jazz records. He spent his adolescence in marching bands (“that’s a very California kid thing”) before heading off to the East Coast and Boston’s Berklee College of Music. “Thinking in a hierarchical way, I’m sure I was mediocre at Berklee,” he says. “I was ordinary … Maybe I still am.”

Here your humble author must protest. If Mark Turner were ordinary, you wouldn’t be reading this story. Precise and protean, he’s a modern-day Sonny Rollins without the muskiness and overt muscularity. When pushed on this, he makes a reluctant acknowledgement: “I started to feel as if there was something about me and my saxophone playing that was different than other players in 1992 [the year he turned 27], something recognizable on its own.”

What separated him then, he felt, was the way that his playing united seemingly contrary approaches. “Something fiery and cool, the best examples being Warne Marsh and John Coltrane. Two players working at the opposite poles at one time. Using meticulous lines with great ornamentation in a modern jazz context. Celebrating a blue flame, as opposed to a red flame. Playing the long game instead of the short game in my sound. Obviously too I was working out my higher register more, with the same tone quality or control in the altissimo [register] as you would [have] with the mid-to-low portion of the horn, akin to what classical saxophonists did.”

A question arises: If Turner has been playing the long game for 30 years, how does that affect his present? He laughs out loud, then responds. “Things I thought that I couldn’t do 15, 10, and even five years ago, I can and am doing,” he says. “That also means that disparate aesthetic goals that I wanted to accomplish in one place, in one band, I could now do. There’s improvising—being able to play in a variety of types of pacing while soloing. And staying afloat. Staying afloat was definitely a part of the long game.”

You may be surprised to learn that two saxophone stylists who have long been special to Turner are Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt. “When I was in high school, they were very much a part of who I was,” he confesses. “And they’re still inside of me, just evolved. Especially in terms of meticulous, linear harmonic type-of-vibes and bop-oriented sounds.”

Move forward from his five soulful, postbop-inspired Warner Bros. albums (from 1998’s eponymous debut to 2001’s Dharma Days) into his current affiliation with ECM and you can hear those influences receding into the background, the delineation of the blues eroding, its fluidity heightened and its lines blurred as Turner’s harmony-based improvisations move into greater focus. What we might call modern Turner—starting with Sky & Country, the 2009 album by Fly, his trio with drummer Jeff Ballard and bassist Larry Grenadier—is, I’d posit, un-blue free jazz, but without a hint of skronk or squawk.

Turner disagrees on the lack of blues. “It’s not obvious, my blues,” he says. “I can do that with the blues—be more obvious—and have certainly done that in the past. But it is difficult to bring out the blues in a way that isn’t so easily noticeable. I still have some way to go to making it not obvious, but I’m getting there. I just don’t want to go that way, that blue way. I have to learn how to bring it in in a different way.”

Two 2012 albums, All Our Reasons and Year of the Snake, are the gateway drug to the high the saxophonist is on throughout Return from the Stars. The first was drummer Billy Hart’s date; besides Hart and Turner, the band included pianist Ethan Iverson and bassist Ben Street. The second was another Fly recording (their most recent). On both, “I was definitely looking to extricate myself from the blues, figure out the blues and my relationship to all that, whatever that means. That search has continued into the present—of me actively figuring out who I was, dealing with tone changes, making things a little brighter.”

Playing with Hart, Turner notes, was akin to going back to the blackboard of all things avant-garde and straight-ahead. “It was definitely like being back in school with a great teacher: the more I got into it, the more I realized how Billy noticed and responded,” he says. “From rhythm to harmony to every aspect of freedom, our playing changed the more that each of us took stock of the other. That is what that whole period was about, those two albums into the album that followed: taking up more space musically, having more weight to the sound.”

The album that followed was 2014’s motivic, meditational, minimalist game-changer Lathe of Heaven. Taking its title from an Ursula K. Le Guin science-fiction novel, it combined the saxophonist’s love of classical sounds with a chamber kick, a chef’s smidgen of postbop, and a greater degree of free improvisation than he had used in the past. Pulling magnetic trumpeter Avishai Cohen into the fold with bassist Joe Martin and drummer Marcus Gilmore, Turner found the frenetic without frenzy, and all without a chordal instrument in sight.

“I think I took more chances, or that I was more willing to take more chances,” Turner says of the period that yielded Lathe of Heaven. “I don’t usually think about my parts. Rather, I think about my compositions, so that my playing supports my writing. I do that as a sideman even more, but bringing that to my compositions … I’m just less concerned about me as opposed to celebrating all of the players.”

Mark Turner (photo: John Rogers/ECM Records)
Mark Turner (photo: John Rogers/ECM Records)

Speaking of players, Return from the Stars features a significantly different band from Lathe of Heaven. Gilmore has been replaced by Jonathan Pinson, and trumpeter Jason Palmer takes Cohen’s spot. While Cohen has a tendency to haunt any atmosphere with warm emotion, Palmer is cool and cerebral, with a wicked sense of humor to go along with his dedication to Turner’s éclat. The quartet’s leader notes that, sound-wise, Cohen and Palmer aren’t that far apart. Or maybe they are?

“Jason’s sound is thicker than Avishai’s in a live setting. Avishai’s is ever-so-slightly lighter. The melodies that Avishai plays have more of a flow, relaxed and easy. Jason, he’s more studied and well-formed. You can hear the work and history in his sound. Avishai in terms of articulation is smooth and lithe, while Jason is cutting, not so much like Clifford Brown, but …”

The creative relationship between Palmer and Turner started more than a decade ago with the trumpeter’s third album as a leader, 2011’s Here Today, and stemmed from his longtime regular engagement at Boston’s beloved Wally’s Jazz Café.

“I had a weekly gig with my own band at Wally’s for over 15 years, every Friday and Saturday night, where we played my originals as well as tunes I would transcribe from various recordings,” Palmer recalls. “There was actually a period of time when my band was playing a lot of Mark’s music. One night we’re playing one of his tunes, ‘Jacky’s Place,’ and all of a sudden I look into the crowd and see a guy who looked like Mark in the audience. The guy didn’t have a horn with him or anything, didn’t have any particular look on his face during the time we were playing the song. In retrospect, we may have sounded sad. After we went on break, I went over and it turned out it was him.”

Two years later, the trumpeter again happened onto Turner, this time at a summer camp in Switzerland; the members of Fly were also on staff there. “I took it upon myself to arrange several Fly songs for a larger ensemble,” Palmer remembers. “That week was the first time we got to play together. That’s when I asked him if he’d ever be interested in playing on one of my recording sessions for SteepleChase. He graciously agreed, so that was the start of that.”

No matter whether Turner’s working as a sideman as on Here Today or as a leader as on Return from the Stars, Palmer thinks that the saxophonist is a singular and influential artist of the highest order: “It’s surreal to make music with him, to be honest, so the simple act of doing that is unique, because he is often imitated, but never duplicated.”

Palmer was a part of Turner’s working band for three years before recording Return from the Stars and played all of the album’s songs live during that period, which gave him an extra ease of motion and thought, a sort of sixth sense about the compositions. This was all part of Turner’s plan; he wanted to reduce the pressure of a studio scenario. “There’s so much stress in studios now,” Turner says. “Everyone has to be on point. You can’t fuck up. Maybe that raises a musical level, but my music needs space and time. Look at the way that Miles Davis and his bands recorded in the ’60s and ’70s. Beyond being masters of their craft, they allowed for more time with the music by having played the material live for a while. That’s why those records sound so damned human. It helps to play the music over and over live. That’s how I’d like to record from now on.”

“I’ve been a student of Mark’s music since I became aware of him in the early 2000s,” Palmer adds. “When I was in college I worked as an orderly at a mental/rehab facility. On the overnight shifts that I had there, if all was calm, I would spend time transcribing his records Dharma Days and In This World. I always feel like a better musician once I’ve internalized a new piece by him. It’s like consuming an unfamiliar vegetable with the understanding that your mind and body will thank you later for eating it.”

Mark with his erstwhile partners in Fly Jeff Ballard (L) and Larry Grenadier (R)(photo: John Rogers/ECM Records)
Mark with his erstwhile partners in Fly Jeff Ballard (L) and Larry Grenadier (R) (photo: John Rogers/ECM Records)

Return from the Stars is the second Turner album to be named after a 20th-century science-fiction novel (the late Polish author Stanislaw Lem gets the cap tip this time). The saxophonist explains that literature “gives me direction. An emotional direction. A narrative direction. I like that. It helps lift the music upwards—the harmonic and musical themes that intertwine are lifted off the page.” 

Sci-fi in particular offers him the perspective of confronting unknown challenges. “The characters of science fiction are dealing with situations that might not exist in the real world. Yet,” he ends dramatically. “There are many what-ifs, then OK-gos. They allow the writer to change the world with a situation that accentuates certain aspects of our culture, of the usual realms of human experience.”

Later in our conversation, Turner will refer to receiving a similar uplift from James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, a 1912 book about “passing” and other matters of race and class relations that the saxophonist fashioned into a live musical piece for the Kennedy Center in February. Personalizing Weldon Johnson’s work in a way he can’t do with science fiction (“yet”), Turner speaks of the intimate connection he felt to the author’s biracial plotline.

“I know about this because my mother and two of my great-aunts could pass for white,” Turner says quietly. “And they never were able to be in touch with their Black relations again—I never even realized people wrote books about passing until this. It was as moving and intellectually stimulating as any science fiction I’ve read.”

Turner’s creative pursuits, as they play out across Return from the Stars, can be seen as an advanced art exercise, a series of dry, icy William S. Burroughs-esque cut-ups that give off the vibe of disorientation and chance, in which everything is slightly askew, harmonically speaking. They’re nebulous. And yet they’re oddly peaceful. 

“It’s always going to be intellectual, what I do—intellectual, psychospiritual, and emotional,” he says. “You set certain parameters, and within that you have to create. I happen to think that those brackets push you to think to a greater extent. You’re in a box, and you have to figure how to get out. Or you don’t have all of the faculties to do what you need to do … Now what happens? What are you going to make? When you engage the intellect, you engage the psychological states, purposefully.”

Catching Up With Saxophonist Mark Turner

Before & After: Mark Turner