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Mark Turner: Lathe of Heaven

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Even cerebral musicians need to connect emotionally with their audiences. Tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, who is as cerebral as they come, struggles with this task on Lathe of Heaven. His first album as a leader since 2001’s Dharma Days, Lathe realizes a dilemma that its predecessor merely suggested: Turner has the technical tools to build tension and suspense in his music, but flounders when it comes to making them relatable.

The composed melodies succeed more often than the improvisations. “Year of the Rabbit” begins with a 5/4 ostinato from bassist Joe Martin (heavy on the double-stops) and drummer Marcus Gilmore, evoking mystery that’s already powerful before Turner and trumpeter Avishai Cohen heighten it with their harmonies on the main theme. It dissipates with the 4/4 secondary theme, however, and by Cohen and Turner’s solos the music has become ponderous and empty. There’s an even better tune to “Ethan’s Line,” but the track becomes less interesting as Turner’s improvisation drifts away from that territory and into flaccid free meter. Tension lies only in Turner’s knowledge of harmony-an intellectual rather than visceral pursuit.

One of the album’s six pieces does thoroughly connect: “Sonnet for Stevie,” a long, slow, dark number whose chilly demeanor this time adds drama to the affair. The rhythms are as tight as the harmonies, and even when Cohen’s solo drifts a bit it does so in compelling fashion. Alas, it’s followed by the closing “Brother Sister,” the album’s most laborious tune (both in execution and listening). Its emotional detachment makes it seem not relaxed but motionless, and a false ending inspires only exasperation. It singlehandedly illustrates all of Lathe‘s problems.

Originally Published