At the Beijing Blue Note this past New Year’s Eve, Mark Turner was a featured soloist with the house big band. During his solos that evening, he never failed to inspire the feeling that what he was playing was somehow impossible, unsurpassed in its instantaneous formal elegance while exceeding all bounds of improvisational plausibility.
This steadily accumulating sense of disbelief crystallized during “Invitation,” a 1950s standard that one of Turner’s own saxophone heroes, Joe Henderson, virtually owned in the sixties and seventies, but that Turner himself completely recast in his own image that night. It wasn’t that Turner sounded invincible—indeed, vulnerability and the imminent possibility of failure is integral to the dramatic appeal of Turner’s playing—but that, in spite of constantly treading along a perilous, uncharted path throughout his labyrinthine solo, he never once faltered.
During the set break, as the band idled in the backstage lounge, Turner and I were in mid-conversation when Coltrane’s solo from “If I Were a Bell,” from the canonical 1956 album Relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet, started playing gently from the overhead speakers. He abruptly froze to listen for a few moments before blurting out, “Oh, man. So killing!”
I started laughing. It was true—it’s an undeniably iconic solo— but I hadn’t been expecting such a sudden pronouncement.
“I used to play this solo over and over,” he added.
“You mean you’d just get to the end and then just start over again?”
“I’d play it over, and over, and over. I couldn’t get enough.”