Mark Turner: Return to the West

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​“The power of unison is super,” Turner said. “It’s 10,000 years old, or more.”

(Photo: Michael Jackson)

Mark Turner is sitting in a coffeehouse bakery in Westwood, California, talking in circles. Concentric, full circles, that is. The highly praised yet still underappreciated tenor saxophonist speaks softly and in thoughtful, cross-referential terms not unlike his expressive voice as player and composer, as heard on Return From The Stars, his sophisticated and soulful, quietly compelling “chordless” quartet album on ECM.

In the pandemic year of 2020, Turner made a return to his ancestral home of Los Angeles after living in New York and often working in Europe for more than a quarter century. That fruitful period found him as an emerging young artist recording with three albums on Warner Brothers, working as a sideman and ally for countless artists and building an impressive roster of projects for ECM. To date, his ECM discography includes the artful (and yes, chordless) trio Fly (with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard), work in the Billy Hart Quartet, the chamber-jazz-like Temporary Kings from 2018 (a tenor-piano duet gem with Ethan Iverson, who is also in Hart’s band) and now two distinctive albums with his own quartet.

Meanwhile, over afternoon coffee, adjacent to his current academic workplace of UCLA, Turner contemplates the full-circle sensibility of life in a city that drew his Black parents from less socially tolerant locales in Ohio and Louisiana in the mid-’60s.

“The Civil Rights [Movement] had just happened,” Turner notes. “They were young and Black and educated and they wanted to come out where things were more open and free.”

At 56, Turner and his wife, Dr. Helena Hansen, find themselves empty-nesters, and he admits that he has recently been processing his lineage out West, not only in familial terms but as a player of music connected with such influential West Coasters as Ornette Coleman, Hampton Hawes and, especially, under-recognized tenor saxophonist Warne Marsh. Marsh and his inspirational imprint are a direct link to the influence of pianist-visionary Lennie Tristano’s cerebral methodology, and that left its mark on Turner’s musical voice, too.

As testament to his evolving artistry, Turner’s next recorded outing is a project recorded in March of this year, to be released in 2023 via Giant Step Arts. A suite based on the 1912 James Weldon Johnson book Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, the music features trumpeter Jason Palmer, who is also in Turner’s quartet. It’s mostly acoustic setting and includes some synthesizer and electric bass. As Turner explains, “It’s got a little Sun Ra vibe happening. I don’t know what to call it — maybe Afro-Futurist. I love that kind of music. A bit of avant-garde is coming into it, too. And the saxophone-trumpet writing is still there, but now with chords.”

In turn, Turner played on Palmer’s 2019 album Rhyme And Reason and this year’s Live From Summit Rock In Seneca Village (both on Giant Step Arts).

As of this year, Turner’s time in the spotlight is overripe. He has been dubbed a cult hero and musician’s musician in jazz circles, a tenor player with a sound and language of his own, at once postmodernist and attuned to the lessons of pan-historical jazz lore.

Possessing a warm tone, an exploratory nature and sure command of his instrument, the somewhat mysterious and reluctant hero Turner — a prolific sideman for years — is now expanding his musical identity to include leader, composer and bandleader, and not a year too soon. The circle continues.

Return From The Stars was recorded in late 2019, just before the lockdown. Does it feel now like something flown in from an earlier chapter in life?

Yes and no. It definitely feels like there’s a lot going on with all of us, and certainly a lot going on with me, in terms of music. Yes, it was from before the pandemic; but, no, it’s part of a long continuum that I’ve come to be involved in. The earlier quartet record [Lathe Of Heaven] was a beginning, but this record — among others now coming out, and another one I just made — feels like a culmination of something, whatever that is.

I’m kind of figuring out my Blackness, what I think about that as a person who grew up on the West Coast in L.A. in the ’70s. That has always come out in music, but there are other parts or aspects that I’ve held back that are starting to come out. It’s partly because I’m old now. [laughs]

Things come out when you get older. Friends are starting to die, and parents. You’ve raised children. You’ve seen a lot of the world. Things start to come out that weren’t there when you were 30. It’s part of living.

Your horn writing for saxophone and trumpet is never predictable. There are unisons and harmonies that aren’t necessarily parallel, and contrapuntal maneuvers. Is that changeable approach important to your concept for this project?

Yeah, it’s definitely important for this quartet, but just in general. It started with writing for Fly. My tunes have two-part writing and harmony. It’s basically a two-part chorale. That part’s not new. My tunes are very contrapuntal, with just two voices.

I’m just trying to figure out what makes a melody sing. Why are some melodies better than others? What is it that makes the tune? Sometimes, it’s your phrasing. Sometimes it’s your tone quality. Sometimes it’s the shape of the melody. Sometimes it’s when you play in relationship with the rhythm.

There are all these details. That has helped me a lot to understand structure, form and all those things — basically, what makes things sing and what doesn’t.

The quartet is “chordless,” with qualifying quotations. There is always a sense of underlying chords and harmonic structure going on in the music, even if only implied. Do you even write out chord forms on your charts?

I do write out chords for people, but mostly, it’s just voice-leading and that’s it. But sometimes, I do write out the chords.

When you’re reading a chart, sometimes you just need to see a G7.

It must be comforting to see that G7.

Yeah, I write out chords and write options for the voice-leading. Sometimes the chords might be optional. It could be an inversion. Sometimes, chords have an option to be major or minor or dominant.

Sometimes unison is necessary. Sometimes you need that opaque sound that you get from unison.

But when there is more contrary motion, things become 3-D. Parallel motion or similar motion is somewhere between. It’s interesting, all the things you can do.

You follow various historical traditions, but in a jazz context, this project relates to the classic quintet format with trumpet and saxophone up front — from Art Blakey to mid-’60s Miles Davis — with piano plucked out of the equation. Was that revamping of classic models in your mind?

Definitely. There’s a lot of that going on, for sure. Some of it is obviously intuitive. This is 2022, so things connect on their own. But some of it is deliberate. The tenor saxophone/trumpet combination is just very powerful to hear it in jazz. Even if the chordal instrument information is different and the language is different, you can’t not hear the Miles and Wayne reference, for example.

But it has been reconfigured because most of the time, they were playing octaves or in unison, or sometimes in fourths and fifths. That’s one thing that’s totally different. As soon as we’re on a record in fourths or fifths and especially unison, you can’t help but think “Miles Davis!” [laughs] There’s nothing wrong with that: I’m all about it.

You fleetingly dip into that pool, but then hightail it out of there.

You’ve got to dip in. The power of unison is super. It’s 10,000 years old, or more. Unison is so beautiful and primal. The other thing is, you’re in that format but in a totally different situation, with long tunes and the saxophone, trumpet and bass being in three-part harmony, especially those saxophone-trumpet performative functions. The saxophone is on top sometimes.

With Miles, the saxophone was almost never on top. It was always the trumpet. I’m changing roles all the time.

For different parts of the song, the trumpet is king of beasts. You’ve got to let him reign. I don’t know what tenor is, animal-wise. [laughs]

One reason I started doing that is that I’ve been playing with Tom Harrell for the last three or four years, and the saxophone’s almost always on the top. It’s so simple and beautiful. It’s great to just hear that, and from a master like him, to be right next to him and hear how he does that in his compositions, when the saxophone is on the top. Usually, he’s playing the super-low trumpet. I thought “OK, I have to try to get that in.”

Also, there is Ornette Coleman’s band, which had trumpet, but Ornette was on the top a lot. OK, my instrument is tenor, but just with the feeling of saxophone on the top and trumpet on the bottom or the near bottom, there’s something powerful about that.

Ornette was obviously a pioneer and strong contender in that “chordless band” field. Did that music have a big impact on you?

Oh, man, huge. I can’t say I know a lot of Ornette heads by heart. I need to learn more. I listened to a lot of that music — Ornette in the late ’50s and the ’60s, but particularly in the ’70s. Science Fiction is my favorite. It made a huge impression on me.

And featuring Bobby Bradford, another West Coaster, and one who stayed in Los Angeles.

Yes, exactly. It’s that whole West Coast, a whole lineage of people who moved here — either they or their parents — from the Midwest and the South. It’s part of this lineage thing of my grandparents and their friends. They didn’t go north. Some people went north to Chicago. But a lot of Black people went west to L.A. It’s a totally different thing, just the way the blues sounds and their version of African-diasporic folklore and music.

I’m not a musicologist, but if you want to talk about the blues, that’s another version of it. It’s got some country in it, some mystery, some calypso in there. It’s totally different than the New York version or Chicago version.

Ornette and Dewey Redman came out from Fort Worth, Texas.

Yeah, exactly. These musicians from Northern Louisiana, Texas and Oklahoma have a totally different thing. I was thinking about Hampton Hawes.

The music is more relaxed, but still has the punch and intensity. I really relate to that. I was trying to figure out what that is and it started coming into my playing more and into my compositions. A lot of it is that space. With people like Hampton, just in his playing, he’s got that space. It’s not as dense.

You have expressed your admiration for Warne Marsh, the Lennie Tristano disciple. How did you get into him and what was it about his music that appealed to you?

All this thing about space, the West appeals to me, and he was another manifestation of that. I ran into him in person in high school. I just knew about him from his work with Lew Tabackin and Toshiko Akiyoshi. We would play some of her arrangements. I heard this weird guy playing with them, and thought, “Who the hell was that?” I was super into it.

Much later, during college, I ran into a piano player, Mike Cain, who was studying with Harvey Diamond, who was completely into the Tristano thing. Like a lot of the Tristano acolytes, if you want to call them that, they have all these bootlegs. I thought, “Oh, let me check this out.”

I was attracted just because I was trying to figure out how to improvise, with people who were really on the edge of their seat and really improvising. Improvisation is a large topic. [Most jazz musicians] were playing organized traditional information, meaning music from the ’40s and ’50s, on tunes. [Tristano acolytes] weren’t playing that.

It was something different. I was just curious: What’s that all about? I was trying to figure out how to create drama, excitement and anticipation without volume, without volume maximalism.

I liked all the other stuff, too — the maximalism, drama, volume — but it seems like that is celebrated way more than the other, and I wanted to find something else.

Your project with alto saxophonist Gary Foster, another Tristano connection, came out in 2019, more than a decade after its recording. You do a great take on Lee Konitz’s “Subconscious-Lee,” among other things, speaking of Tristano links.

Oh, yeah. Man, it was super awesome. That came out finally. I met Gary because he heard through the grapevine that I was into Warne, and he had a good relationship with Warne. So, for me, it was incredible to meet someone still living but with a connection to that school, and to play with him. It was incredible.

Thinking about projects without chordal instruments, two examples were ECM projects — Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition, with Arthur Blythe and David Murray, and Dave Holland’s band with Steve Coleman, Kenny Wheeler and Robin Eubanks.

Yeah, that’s true. I remember the (Holland) albums Triplicate and Jumpin’ In. I transcribed some of Steve’s playing from that. This was 15 years ago or so. I heard them, but I can’t say they influenced me directly, at least not in terms of this project.

Were there any specific models you can point a finger at, in terms of conceiving of your quartet?

I wouldn’t say there was anything direct in terms of writing patterned after a certain band. It’s more like there are details about voicing or harmony or parts of tunes that relate to parts of jazz and parts of classical music.

The closing track on the new album, “Lincoln Heights,” is also the “straightest.” It’s almost a gospel/soul tune, in 6/8 — though sometimes sneaking into 9/8.

Yeah, there’s a little extra.

What’s the story behind that piece?

It’s just having a little bit of that R&B/gospel thing, which is a part of me, but which I’ve never been able to figure out how to put in before and make it not so different from the rest of the music.

You can have a lot of tunes from different genres. That happened a lot in the ’90s, with records that were eclectic and celebrated that fact. I’m not saying it’s wrong. It’s just not what I wanted to do. It’s easy to be eclectic, but hard to integrate the music.

The other thing is that I wanted to write a simple tune. I wanted to just write a one-page tune — which I usually don’t. That’s basically what it was, a simple, soulful melody. I wasn’t sure about the rhythm, but I knew it would be something like what it turned out to be, some kind of 6/8. The rest of it unfolded on its own. The other thing that ended up happening was some kind of repetitive refrain, which tapped into R&B.

After many projects on ECM, how has it been working with Manfred Eicher? Is he a kindred spirit?

Yeah, in some ways. He has been really cool and great, personally, for sure. I’ve benefitted from it and enjoyed working with him. Through classical music, he’s got that Germanic music cultural connection to music, which is interesting. When he’s in the studio, he’s able to describe what’s going on, whatever that might be. It might be dynamics or something about the form or flow or pace of the music. That’s unique to have that happening in the studio. Particularly when he’s mixing, that’s when it really goes down. He’s really great at that.

He’s very precise in what he wants, but he’s also open to make things alive, in certain kinds of music.

I can see why he would be drawn to projects like Fly and your quartet, both open and spacious, but with musical intrigue attached. For instance, he loved the old Jimmy Giuffre Trio, which he reissued several years ago.

That was super amazing. Whoo. I used to listen to that a lot, in the ’90s and early 2000s. You were asking about a direct influence — that’s one. It’s not chordal. Manfred seemed to like what we were doing enough to let us record.

On your early Warner Brothers albums, you were young but with a poise and maturity beyond your years, especially compared to the young bloods on the scene in the ’90s.

Right, the young lions. I was anti-“young lion.” [laughs]

So, you were a rebel in that case. How do you compare Mark Turner, circa 2022, and your musical self in that emerging era? Are they connected?

Yeah. I was on that trajectory then, and I was trying to figure out how to put things together. I still am. I would say the connection is like someone playing the long game. It’s like a 2,000-mile pilgrimage in the Medieval era.

Back then, maybe I was at 100 miles. Maybe I’m at mile 1,000 now.

So your musical trek is an ongoing evolution?

Yeah, totally. DB




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