[Dixielandjazz] Mark Turner - A voice of "Intellectual" Jazz

Stephen Barbone barbonestreet@earthlink.net
Sun, 16 Jun 2002 18:04:16 -0400

List mates:

I heard him once, a year ago for about 45 minutes in Connecticut. He is
not OKOM, but he is a sensational jazz player. If he ever comes to your
town, go hear him. His story is much like Monk's. Just a very small
audience of folks who currently dig what he is doing, but he persists
and maybe like Monk, he'll become famous when he turns 40.

In any event, I think his story makes interesting reading for all
serious jazz players.

Steve Barbone

June 16, 2002

The Best Jazz Player You've Never Heard


      THE tenor saxophonist Mark Turner is possibly jazz's premier
player, and at the same time he's a very typical one.

      He isn't getting rich. He isn't becoming famous. He has no
publicist. He doesn't even have a record contract. He
had one for three years, but the label, Warner Brothers, dropped him 
the way the major record labels are dropping
mainstream jazz artists right and left these days. Yet Mark Turner, who
is 36, keeps playing where he can, and his stature
in the jazz world keeps growing. This month, for the first time, he'll
appear in the JVC Jazz Festival in New York, which
starts today.

A few months ago I had an experience that starkly demonstrated how
important Mr. Turner is among younger
musicians. While reporting on the Thelonious Monk Institute saxophone
competition in Washington  an annual
contest that has become something like the Van Cliburn competition of
jazz  I heard 15 young players. As expected,
most of them drew much of their sound from one source: John Coltrane.
There was no mistaking that gruff, keening
tone, those scale-based patterns.

But to my surprise, the second most prevalent sound among the 15 was
very different. It was lighter, more evenly
produced from the bottom to the very top of the horn, in long, chromatic
strokes. At first I thought it was the sound of
Warne Marsh. But there was no reason to think that Marsh, who died in
1987 and was always a minority taste, had
suddenly become au courant. Then I realized that it was the sound of
Mark Turner.

Outside of jazz's small world, however, I can't remember holding a
conversation with anyone who has heard of Mr.
Turner. This is how it often works in serious mainstream jazz, a
discipline that bears comparison to serious painting or
poetry in that it is often accused of being dead yet continues to evolve
and even find a modest audience.

Mr. Turner should have his own regular band, as the more successful
artists in jazz do. (He'll play with Ben Street on
bass and Jeff Ballard on drums in his JVC show at the Village Vanguard
on June 27  a trio that looks as if it may
become regular in time.) Within the limited circle of jazz clubs across
the country, Mr. Turner tends to play with young,
top-shelf rhythm-section musicians like the drummers Brian Blade and
Nasheet Waits, the bassists Larry Grenadier and
Reid Anderson, the pianists Ethan Iverson and Brad Mehldau. In the past,
he hasn't been offered enough steady work to
keep musicians like those with him. To maintain a high-level band, you
need an international audience and a lot of
festival gigs. To get a lot of festival gigs, it helps to have a
major-label record deal.

Mr. Turner lost his in December, after four releases. At first, his
association with Warner Brothers looked as if it could
last. He is a standard-bearer. His music is intellectual and rigorously
composed, defined by long, flowing, chromatically
complex lines that keep their stamina and intensity as they stay
dynamically even. He has learned how to play the highest
reaches of his instrument, the altissimo register, with a serene
strength, never shouting for the effect that audiences love.
The overwhelming sense about Mr. Turner is that he wants to get on with
his work.

Musicians can't say a negative word about him. ("His music is the
freshest thing around," said the singer Luciana Souza,
an accomplished composer. "I want to write like that. It's `out' music
that still sounds very musical and consonant.") Mr.
Turner writes his own material; he is lean and handsome; he has a
thrift-store-cool fashion sense: large-collar shirts,
cardigans and 1970's earth tones.

But in the end, Mr. Turner's music may have been too rigorous for Warner
Brothers and he isn't the sort who might turn
his music around to sell records. There was some disconnection between
artist and label. An album, "Ballad Session,"
conceived by Warner Brothers as a corrective to the notion that Mr.
Turner was all intellect, ended up becoming a
collection of candlelight jazz standards like "Skylark" and "All or
Nothing at All." Mr. Turner had originally wanted to
record an album of "slow music," as he called it  pieces from all over
the map, including original tunes and works by
Olivier Messaien and Aphex Twin.

Finally, as explained by Matt Pierson, senior vice president of jazz at
Warner Brothers, it came down to brute numbers.
The albums didn't sell well (in major-label terms, that means at least
10,000 copies). The company couldn't justify the
cost of the marketing that it routinely puts into its releases, which
can run to $50,000  easily twice what an independent
label would spend.

"It's fine," Mr. Turner said of the end of his relationship with the
label. "I was considering trying to get out of it myself.
Nothing against Warner, but I feel relieved and open and free."

Since being dropped by Warner Brothers, Mr. Turner says he has had no
calls from record labels.

Some jazz recording executives say that broader audiences don't have the
patience to deal with compositions like his 
moody, with long, difficult-to-remember themes. But the fact is that
Mark Turner is a great jazz musician during a
particularly bad time for being a great jazz musician.

Jazz does not stand alone anymore as a viable, self-sustaining
department within most major record companies. Most are
following the successful example of Nonesuch, which has sprinkled a few
jazz artists among its list of new classical
music, singer-songwriter rock, Cuban and African oldies and chic
unclassifiables like Laurie Anderson. Since the
mid-90's, when major labels were let down by the failure of a mostly
press-driven "renaissance" that had encouraged
them to sign young jazz bandleaders in the vein of Wynton Marsalis and
Terence Blanchard, jazz is now seen by record
executives as one of many possible kinds of "adult" music. (The big
exception is for the back-catalog jazz reissues,
which are far outselling new work.)

Verve  an important label in jazz since 1956  has cut half of its
traditional jazz roster in the last year, canceling
contracts with respected names like Russell Malone, Kenny Barron and
Christian McBride; it is putting its energies into
promoting the singers Diana Krall and Natalie Cole. Blue Note, the other
well-known strictly jazz imprimatur, has just
had its first gold album (with sales of more than 500,000 copies) in
nine years: "Come Away With Me," by Norah
Jones, who is not a jazz artist but a folk-rock singer. Not surprising,
the label is looking for more of her kind and less of
Mark Turner's.

Mr. Turner is quiet and self-assured but essentially noncompetitive.
(During an interview with him at a Midtown
Manhattan restaurant, my tape recorder barely registered his voice; when
I suggested that his sound had been studied by
some of the saxophonists who regularly played at the New York jazz club
Smalls in the mid-90's, he demurred by saying

Among younger jazz musicians, he inspires admiration for his approach to
practicing and living as much as for his
playing. Mr. Turner, a Buddhist, lives in New Haven with his wife,
Helena Hansen, a doctoral candidate in anthropology
at Yale University, and two children; he enjoys the quiet of a town
where there is no jazz scene to speak of.

"I went and practiced with him once," said the saxophonist Bill McHenry,
who is 29. "He showed me these music books
of things he writes out; just in one book of 36 pages he had tons of
different chords and exercises. Because of the purity
of his approach, he influences a lot of different people in that way 
either like me, who does freer stuff, or someone
else, who does straight-ahead music: it doesn't matter."

It took some time for Mr. Turner to find his own voice on the
instrument. He was born in Ohio, grew up in Cerritos and
Palos Verdes, Calif., near Los Angeles, and played saxophone in high
school. (He was also a dedicated break-dancer,
who broke his front teeth attempting a back flip.) After a brief period
studying design and illustration at Long Beach
State University, he went to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, in
the late 80's, where he quickly became known as
a super-studious musician who had explored Coltrane more deeply than
anyone around him.

"I was fairly methodical," Mr. Turner remembered. "I almost always wrote
out Coltrane's solos, and I'd have a lot of
notes on the side."

Wasn't he afraid of becoming trapped inside Coltrane's voice? "No," he
said, sanguinely. "By doing it, I knew I would
eventually not be interested in it anymore. Also, I noticed that if you
looked at someone else who was into Trane, and if
you could listen through that person's ear and mind, it would be a
slightly different version. That's who you are  it's
how you hear." After exploring Coltrane, Mr. Turner approached the work
of Joe Henderson, Dexter Gordon and Sonny
Rollins in the same meticulous way.

BY the early 90's, he said, he had exhausted his interest in "a line of
tenor players who do pretty much what most tenor
players do today. That is, more of an aggressive sound, with a
vocabulary that's come to be a bit programmed." When he
moved to New York in 1990, he turned to a new figure, who bumped him
into a new place: Warne Marsh.

Best known as a fellow-traveler of the pianist Lennie Tristano, Marsh
represented the opposite of aggression: he was a
linear, melodic improviser who managed to merge spontaneity and
research, playing nearly Bach-like melodic lines. As
he listened more closely, Mr. Turner found that there was a link between
Marsh, Coltrane and Mr. Henderson. And that
was Lester Young, the great light-toned saxophonist of the swing era.

Mr. Turner has appeared on some excellent records  particularly his own
"In This World" (Warner Brothers, 1998)
and "Abolish Bad Architecture" (Fresh Sound, 1999), an album by the
bassist Reid Anderson on which he played a
sideman role. But his best work is clearly still ahead of him. He says
he is done with being the leader of the Mark Turner
Trio or the Mark Turner Quartet: he wants to form a cooperative band
that doesn't bear his name and to share composing
and publishing credit. Part of his reasoning is modesty, but he also
believes he can reach a new and wider audience that
way. Some of his contemporaries believe that his dedication to music may
be so pure that it affects the music's reception.
"His style is so understated in a way," said the saxophonist Donny
McCaslin. "His demeanor is reserved, and his
playing reflects that. He has an introspective sound. Maybe people
aren't seeing what's there."

Mr. Anderson, the bassist, puts it more precisely. "He uses harmonies
that are his language of harmony; he hears the
melody within those harmonies. Sometimes they're complex, and on the
surface are almost nonfunctional. But they're of
course fully functional. He's dealing on that high level that perhaps
only the initiated can appreciate."