Turning the Tide: Mark Turner on ECM

Mark Turner’s tenor is a singular voice in modern jazz. He is that rare saxophonist who eschews the trend of thinking outside the box by recalibrating its inner space to the tune of freedom. Turner embodies his surname, navigating every twist and corner of whatever melody lies before him as if rafting down a brilliant stream of consciousness. On ECM, Turner has conquered some of the strongest currents of his career so far with a craft so multifaceted that even notes of chromatic scales seem worlds apart.


As a guest artist of Enrico Rava (New York Days) and Billy Hart (All Our Reasons), he has proven his unpacking abilities with uncanny assurance. As a leader, he has shown himself to be more than a musician. He is a consummate storyteller. Yet even as a storyteller he favors at least two major narrative modes, each embodied by the albums I’ve put together below.

Year Of The Snake

Year Of The Snake

Mark Turner tenor saxophone
Larry Grenadier double bass
Jeff Ballard drums
Recorded January 2011 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: Aya Merrill
Assistant: Fernando Lodeiro
Produced by Manfred Eicher

When Turner broke out with Sky & Country, the ECM debut of his so-called FLY trio, he set up, along with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard, a towering structure of expectation, the heights of which have more than doubled with Year Of The Snake. Not only have Turner and friends stepped up their game; they’ve redefined it.

Turner carries an even more sizable portion of the composing credits this time around, providing the motif for “The Western Lands” and its four variations. Its stepwise beginnings coax the trio from slumber as the sun draws in the last traces of night with its yawn. Arco bass streaks the overhead with plane trails as Turner’s coated tone pulls roots from below. In other iterations, these pieces—meant to evoke the western United States, from which all the band members originate—become increasingly haunted by their own ghosts. Brushed drums and starry percussion sketch silhouettes of autobiographical history as Turner and Grenadier divine the bones left behind. Yet before Ballard closes the circle with a cymbal meditation, there’s much in the way of visions to be had.

Fly Trio

The strengths of each composer play to those of the other bandmates. Turner’s three main tunes, for example, highlight the bond of his rhythmatists, who ride the title track with dressage-like synergy and pull out all the stops for the aptly titled “Festival Tune.” Even Turner’s high-beam walks through “Brothersister” regain their toe line because of Grenadier and Ballard’s watchful ears. Together they scope out a massive construction site, looking for clues into the nature of improvisation—only to discover that its origins are to be found in rubble and memory. Ballard’s tunes front dialogues of reed and bass. From the artfully geometric “Diorite” to the slicker “Benji,” melodies leap from the fingers like cats. Turner, for his part, generally sticks to the higher end of the horn on this set, digging for grit only when required, as on “Salt And Pepper,” a noir-ish track that is a bass-lover’s dream.

The biggest revelation here, however, is Grenadier’s “Kingston.” Something of a sectional track, it links a chain of solos and duos before latching on to a groovy backbeat. Turner runs wild with inspiration here, running up the thematic latter and mulching it into a thousand pieces. Transgressing one unexpected horizon after another, he rejoins Grenadier over a spiraling train track of destiny. Like the album as a whole, it is as much a leap of evolution as intuition for the trio and a significant exposition of what jazz can be when allowed to roam.

(To hear samples of Year Of The Snake, click here.)

Lathe of Heaven

Mark Turner Quartet
Lathe of Heaven

Mark Turner tenor saxophone
Avishai Cohen trumpet
Joe Martin double bass
Marcus Gilmore drums
Recorded June 2013 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Assistant engineer: Akihiro Nishimura
Mixed January 2014 by James A. Farber, Manfred Eicher and Mark Turner
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Turner’s first nominal leader date for ECM is an altogether different animal. Named after a novel by Ursula K. Le Guin, it comes across as more interested in the science than the art of storytelling. Le Guin’s tale even gives us the perfect term: HURAD, which stands for Human Utility: Research and Development. Lathe of Heaven is indeed a laboratory of sonic utility, stretching the saxophone like a DNA profile chart and plotting its growth on staves.

As befitting of an album under his name, the entire set was written and conceived by Turner as an article of mystery. The title opener sets up a fresh dynamic between Turner’s tenor and the trumpet of Avishai Cohen. Their patterning reveals compositional acumen in spades, springing to life when bassist Joe Martin and drummer Marcus Gilmore kick in their four cents. But even as the full quartet guides the listener into a brilliantly populated landscape of urban memory, it’s clear that Turner is content to build his tunes in stages. Nowhere more so than in “Year of the Rabbit.” In addition to referencing Year Of The Snake, it throws a spotlight Gilmore, who at once lays out and navigates an intricate maze of snare and cymbal. It’s not surprising that the textural blend and modal harmonies here sound like John Zorn’s Masada, especially when one considers that Cohen has dipped into that songbook’s mystical waters in the context of his Lemon Juice Quartet. Amid his flurry of filament, Turner side-winds into focus to rearticulate the theme before moving vertically. “Brother Sister 2” nods again to Snake, expanding the spinal theme of its predecessor into a more protracted nervous system of (in)tensely rubato character. It unravels the thrumming heartstrings of Martin’s bass, breathing in deeper each time until a precordial catch snaps things back into place.

The remaining pieces of the puzzle pay homage in their own right. The tense, dissonant leads of “Ethan’s Line” evoke those of dedicatee Ethan Iverson. “The Edenist,” with its locked-in rhythm section and distinct soloing, references the possessions of sci-fi author Peter F. Hamilton. Combining Cohen’s low-flying dreams and Turner’s wider talons, it claws through branches to a moral nest within. And then there’s “Sonnet for Stevie,” Turner’s spacious tribute to the blues. There’s no need for “Wonder” in this or any other title, because this album is brimming with it. So ends the tale, in anticipation of another.

If Year Of The Snake is the dawn, then Lathe of Heaven is the dusk. Together they form a most satisfying day.

How brief in time, how infinite in measure.

(To hear samples of Lathe of Heaven, watch the video above or click here.)

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