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Mark Turner & Ethan Iverson: Temporary Kings (ECM)/Mikkel Ploug & Mark Turner: Faroe (Sunnyside)

Review of two duo albums featuring tenor saxophonist Turner

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Cover of Mark Turner/Ethan Iverson album Temporary Kings
Cover of Mark Turner/Ethan Iverson album Temporary Kings

Each of these two duet albums features tenor saxophonist Mark Turner working with someone with whom he normally plays in a quartet. In the case of Temporary Kings, that someone would be pianist Ethan Iverson, who works with Turner in drummer Billy Hart’s quartet; on Faroe, it’s Danish guitarist Mikkel Ploug, who invited the saxophonist into the Mikkel Ploug Group in 2005. In both cases, Turner’s distinctive sound is a key part of the music’s appeal, but how it fits in is quite different on each.

Temporary Kings, recorded in Lugano, Switzerland, is the more ethereal session, drawing on the austerely cerebral legacy of Lennie Tristano and Warne Marsh as well as the intimate dynamics of chamber music. Hard-swinging it’s not, but neither does it sidestep jazz tradition. Instead, Iverson and Turner employ understatement, suggestion, and artful feints to transform the blues in “Unclaimed Freight” or boil a chord progression down to its essence, as with Marsh’s “Dixie’s Dilemma.”

Iverson’s playing draws freely from the classical tradition; there are moments in his solo piece, “Yesterday’s Bouquet,” that would sit nicely next to a Debussy Prélude. But it’s the exquisite sweetness of Turner’s tenor, particularly as it arches into altissimo register, that truly makes this album sing. Indeed, the stunning, unaccompanied first minute of his “Myron’s World” may be some of the best saxophone playing you’ll hear this year.

Cover of Mikkel Ploug/Mark Turner album Faroe

Turner is also the lyric center of Faroe, although for different reasons. Where Iverson answers Turner’s questing phrases with equally haunting melodicism, Ploug often holds up his side of things with fingerpicked arpeggios, answering melody with harmony and rhythm. Playing either steel-string acoustic or lightly amplified electric, Ploug’s guitar takes on a rippling, percussive aspect that, on tunes like “Neukölln,” follows Turner’s melancholic lines like a wake on a smooth pond. Ploug’s role isn’t strictly supportive; he gets in some lovely counterpoint on the samba-inflected “Como,” and leads Turner through the busy, near-unison leaps of “Steps.”

If there’s a complaint to be made about Faroe, it’s that Ploug is too self-effacing in his contributions. Sure, he wrote all the material and no doubt takes pleasure in hearing what Turner brings to the music, but after hearing the sweetly swinging guitar solo in the middle of “Sea Minor,” it’s hard not to wish for more.

Originally Published