Mark Turner: Return from the Stars (ECM 2684)

Mark Turner
Return from the Stars

Mark Turner tenor saxophone
Jason Palmer trumpet
Joe Martin double bass
Jonathan Pinson drums
Recorded November 2019 at Sear Sound Studio, New York
Engineer: Chris Allen
Mixed September 2021 at Studios La Buissonne
by Manfred Eicher and Gérard de Haro
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Production coordinator: Guido Gorna
Cover photo: Thomas Wunsch
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: March 25, 2022

Admirers who have traced the influences of Mark Turner will know of his interest in science fiction. More than the inspiration for an evocative title or two, the underlying ethos running through his work like dark matter in a timeslip could come from no other genre, articulated as it is in a language that feels as spatial as it does temporal. As Stanisław Lem wrote in Solaris: “We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors.” In the bell of Turner’s tenor saxophone, one indeed finds a mirror for scrutinizing our egos in melodic ways.

Return from the Stars puts Turner back on the ECM map, carrying over bassist Joe Martin from 2013’s Lathe of Heaven and adding drummer Jonathan Pinson and trumpeter Jason Palmer for eight originals. The lack of keyboard allows for two crucial things to happen. First, it opens the ears to Turner’s compositional prowess, graceful yet given to unexpected turns and shades of meaning. Second, it opens space in the recording and exchanges between the musicians. The resulting music, smooth without filling in every gap, invites listeners to ruminate and appreciate the inner workings at hand. Against a rhythm section digging its heels only when needed (and without ever overstating the issue), interplay between horns unfolds organically (Turner is always moving from one terrain to the next while Palmer seems to work his awl into the wood of his thinking, uncovering ever-deeper layers of meaning). Sitting among the evocative gems of “Bridgetown” and “Nigeria II,” tracks like “Terminus” and “Lincoln Heights” walk in places that have been lived in. Throughout, the writing is suggestive rather than declamatory. The titles of “It’s Not Alright With Me” and “Unacceptable” evoke a playful gray area between frustration and freedom from it. The blurring of such dichotomies is a sign of maturity: letting emotions speak for themselves rather than shouting in their place. In “Waste Land,” too, I get the feeling that these pieces are always growing and that we are privy to some of their prime phases.

(This review originally appeared in the April 2022 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Mark Turner/Ethan Iverson: Temporary Kings (ECM 2583)

2583 X

Temporary Kings

Mark Turner tenor saxophone
Ethan Iverson piano
Recorded June 2017, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 7, 2018

Following two appearances on ECM as part of the Billy Hart Quartet, saxophonist Mark Turner and pianist Ethan Iverson return to the fold as a duo. Their speculative blend of chamber jazz is a nod to the Lennie Tristano/Warne Marsh school, yet every listen reveals layers of spontaneous design.

Marsh’s own “Dixie’s Dilemma” is a thematic centerpiece, which in its present form feels like a jazz message shot into space, scrambled by the universe and dropped back through the Earth’s atmosphere with exacting lyricism. The lion’s share of credit, though, goes to Iverson, who penned six of the album’s nine selections. Set opener “Lugano” is an ode to the place of its recording as well as the state of mind it conveys. It’s a feeling that could exist nowhere and nowhen else and finds Turner’s tone, fleshier than ever, sprouting wings from the spine of an aching altissimo. The title tune and darker “Third Familiar” are soundtracks of the soul while the tighter knots of “Turner’s Chamber of Unlikely Delights” unravel with playful extroversion. Against the cloudy backdrop of “Yesterday’s Bouquet,” a piano solo oozing with remembrance, the bluesier “Unclaimed Freight” puts a spirited ice cube in the cocktail. Turner’s contributions, for their part, constitute a binary star of personal expression. Where “Myron’s World” is a masterfully realized tangle of associations given credence by the profundity of their grammar, “Seven Points” is the album’s creative apex. Its balance between focus and surrender is indicative of open communication. Turner navigates every change of direction and terrain with eyes closed and heart open, yielding massive returns from investments of experience.

Although the musicians were recorded in the same room, they seem to inhabit their own planetary orbits. Bound by the gravitation of a serious whimsy, they finish each other’s sentences even as they begin to cast new lines into the galactic pond on which they’ve anchored their boat for an hour’s duration. And while their kingship may be temporary, whatever they’re tapping into is anything but.

(This review originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

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.)