This following discussion appears as part of an extensive portfolio of new work devoted to Mark Turner in Music & Literature no. 8. To view the complete contents of the volume, which includes exclusive contributions from many of Turner’s musical collaborators, click here. This interview was conducted in person on May 4, 2016 in Brooklyn, New York. The text was transcribed by Hannah Johnson, and has been edited for length and accuracy.
Ben Ratliff: I want to know more about your grandfather. There’s an airport named after him, right?
Mark Turner: Yes, there is now. It’s in Ohio.
I know only a little bit about his time training African-American air-force pilots during the 1940s.
Yes, exactly, he trained pilots in Tuskegee. He wasn’t enlisted, but he was one of the non-enlisted who trained pilots. I don’t remember how many trainers they had, but he was one of the main guys that did it.
He lived in Ohio?
When I knew him, he lived in Ohio.
And you came originally from Ohio?
Yes, I was born there. Right around where they lived.
You’ve had family in that area for a while?
Yeah, they’ve been in that area—Indiana, Ohio—since the early 1800s. They were freed early; that side of the family was freed in the 1820s, something like that. So they, along with a lot of other African Americans, were freed early or went to that Ohio-Indiana area because of the underground railroad. That’s why a lot of well-known jazz musicians, educators, intellectuals—black intellectuals—come from that part of the country: basically, the Midwest, like Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan. My parents and my grandparents were part of that whole group. I don’t know how far you want me to go into it.
I’d love to know more.
That’s where they’re from, my grandparents on my mother’s side. They were from Angola, Indiana. And my grandfather went to Indiana Wesleyan—the Wesleyan that’s still religious. He actually left quite a bit of money to them, too—I’ll explain that later. But basically, he was a badass. He was a great guy. He was born to a fairly large family, I don’t remember, maybe six, seven kids? He met my grandmother in that town, and, you know, pretty traditional—I think she was seventeen maybe, and I think he was twenty-one.
And his name was…?
And her name was?
Yeah. They met when she was in high school. My grandmother told me the story: he kind of gave her an ultimatum.
He said something like: “I’m leaving to do some work. When I come back I need your answer: yes or no.” Great-grandfather was into it, so eventually she said yes. They got married soon after. I don’t know when—she was young, she was in her twenties. He put her through college. He put himself through college—he was an aviator, and he flew planes to make money. In that time period, in the twenties, there were fairs and things, and, you know, they’d have an airplane, and people would go on rides. So, he would do that. Among other things. Like a barnstormer.
And he could fix planes?
Mm-hmm. He was an engineer. He built planes, too. When I was a kid, I went every other summer and we’d fly. The garage had airplanes in it—no cars. [Laughs.] So there were always airplane parts. And there was another shop that he worked at. So I was always there helping him solder, putting planes together. He made airplanes. He’d make the models—we’d make them together, I’d just watch him, or he’d show me. And he’d make them and say: “OK, I’m going to make this one, what do you think, Mark?” Whatever, he was just having fun—I was a kid. [Laughs.]
And then he’d make it.
I don’t know how many he made. He had a few—maybe one or two he made before I was born. And then when I was going there, hanging with my grandparents, he made at least two. Then he’d take them apart and say, “Eh, I don’t like that one.” And he’d make another one. [Laughs.]
Is it true that he felt that planes should be as common as cars?
Yes, that’s right. Man, you really read up on him! He did. His main thing was making an airplane—which he did, he made a few models—where the wings fold up, and you could just drive it on the road, and if you want to take off, you just take the wings down and fly it. That’s what he was doing. He had a few versions of those. Yeah, and we went up in it a few times. He did it. He wanted an airplane, basically, for the common man. He wanted everyone to be able to fly or just drive around. You know, go where you need to, and fly when you want to. And have an affordable plane, because they’re expensive.
You mean drive around in the plane with the wings folded up? Then when you need to lift off, take out the wings?
Basically, yes. [Laughs.] Which he did. I mean, he wouldn’t necessarily go around town all the time in the plane, but [the idea was] just to maybe have the airplane in your garage instead of having it in an airport where you pay rent, and if you want to fly, you just take it out a few miles down the road where you find a clear space and then take off.
That’s so outside-the-box.
He was a pretty thinking-outside-the-box guy.
Did that make an impression on you, the force of his thinking?
Oh, definitely. Huge impression on me, for sure. Just thinking about the way he lived his life. He did not want to waste a moment. He wasn’t into following what other people did just to do it. I think he was into saving time and money and maximizing himself, you know, at all moments. Whatever that meant. So, consequently, he became a multimillionaire, too.
Yes. I didn’t know when I was a kid.
Well, he worked the stock market. He grew up in that time period, the sweet spot, right after World War II, before the eighties. And he was working with—maybe I shouldn’t say “playing”—the stock market in the sixties and seventies. Maybe he started in the fifties, I don’t know, but I remember in the seventies for sure; that’s when I went to see him. Definitely in the sixties. He was involved in that, and he really enjoyed it because he really enjoyed to save.
They lived in the same house, a very modest house—about the same size as this, maybe slightly bigger—the whole time I knew them. You’d never know that they were multimillionaires. And they bought—the first car that I remember—a Delta ’88, and after that, as soon as the Datsun came out, that’s what they had. And he’d just always buy those. Whenever they were going downhill, he’d turn the engine off, and whenever he stopped he’d turn the engine off. Really, really frugal. Super-frugal. Ridiculous. When they died, they left I don’t know how much money, but it was a huge library that they bought, or left: he’s an alumnus of Indiana Wesleyan, and he left a huge library to that school. I mean a massive, really beautiful, huge library. Not small.
And it has his name on it?
Was Lewis interested in the arts?
That’s a funny thing. In a way, no; in a way, yes. No, in the sense that I think he was suspicious of the arts, and maybe felt that they were only for people who are privileged. And that’s largely true. But I think he wanted anything that’s considered of higher value—arts, aviation, education—to be available for everybody. And so, I think he believed in them, but he was suspicious. He felt like, “Well, if not everyone can have it, then I question its value.”
If not everyone can have it…
Have it, or have access. I think he felt like people can understand the arts, you know, literature, high levels of engineering, or science. I think he was just suspicious that those things were not made available. Why aren’t they available? Maybe they’re made to seem more valuable than they are, so on and so forth. You know, he never said those things, but I kind of gathered that that’s what he was thinking.
I think he confronted that with aviation to some extent, in that he was always trying to make this airplane—which he did—but, you know, it didn’t become commercially available. Basically, people that wanted to fly wanted sexier airplanes. They wanted a plane that has all the stops, really nice, expensive. And they’re great, they’re beautiful airplanes, but I think he kind of felt like, “Well, why aren’t the people who can make these airplanes available interested in manufacturing them, why aren’t they into them? They’d probably make a lot of money. A lot of people would probably want to fly in a plane that’s not very expensive that they could just put in the garage.”
Sure, why not?
Why not? What’s up with that? And I think that’s what was going on in his head. Aviation, still—for the most part, maybe it’s a little different, but when I was a kid and before—is basically for people who are upper-middle class, who are rich, you know. How many people can afford a car and an airplane, and pay rent to store the airplane, and have leisure enough to go out and fly it if you want to, you know. And those things were true for all those other things. I wouldn’t say that that’s necessarily true for literature, but to have time to think about reading a lot, or being interested, or being educated enough to even think about that, or to go to an art museum, or listen to jazz, or anything like that. I think it was all the same realm for him.
Did people think him—them—eccentric?
Certainly some people did, yeah. One, just because he was so frugal. And I think that most people didn’t realize how much money he made or how much he was worth. But he also had a lot of friends. He was very social. He had a huge—I don’t know if the word is “network”—but he knew a lot of people from the aviation world, from education, all ages, a lot of people he had met. A lot of people loved him.
You originally lived not far from where he lived?
What was the name of the town?
It was, let’s see… We lived in Yellow Springs [Ohio], my mother and I, right after my father died—my biological father. We lived there, not far from them. They lived in Xenia. So, I don’t know, fifteen minutes, twenty minutes?
Your father died when you were very young?
Yes, he died when I was one and a half, or something like that. And he was in the Air Force. He was an engineer, and he loved jazz, too. I don’t know, maybe that’s how I got into it.
Was it something sudden?
Yeah, it was sudden. He was about to go to Vietnam, he was training B-52 bombers in—I think it was New York, an Air Force base… Anyways, it was sudden. The plane was about to land, they aborted the landing, and then they were about to just take off and go around and then the engines didn’t fire on one side, so it kind of capsized. I think the pilot survived and, I think, there were only two other passengers: my father and someone else.
Did he like jazz?
He did, actually. I didn’t know until… I knew a little bit in high school, but only because my parents—“parents” meaning both fathers and my mother—had a fair amount of records. And there were some records with his name on them, so that’s how I knew he liked jazz. Once you’re thirteen, fourteen, you start looking up what your parents are doing. So that’s how I knew. Later on, my parents told me stories that he was really into it, actually. And he knew where—I don’t know what “all the clubs” means—but, a lot of clubs in the Midwest and the East Coast. Detroit, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Chicago, and also St. Louis. I don’t know if they went to New York, but maybe Philadelphia, too.
Do you remember which records you knew were his?
Yeah. Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons records. He loved Sonny Stitt. They were pretty much all Sonny Stitt records. Dinah Washington also, and some other ones. But Sonny Stitt was his man. My mother told me, actually, that they went to see him a few times and that that was his man. He played alto in high school. Somehow I feel that has something to do with me getting involved in music, because I wasn’t going to do it.
Back to my grandfather. Where were we…? Oh yeah, they got married, college, and they were both educators. They both ended up getting PhDs. They taught at Wilberforce University or College. It’s a small one, but one of the historically black colleges.
Which is close to Xenia, Dayton, and all that; it’s near Springfield. By the time I was seeing them in the seventies I think my grandmother might have still been teaching, but then she retired and then my grandfather started teaching at another school in Dayton. And he retired early. I mean, at some point he didn’t need to work there. I didn’t know that. But I think he just enjoyed teaching. And they both had an education [degree], which is the degree that—as far as I know—most African Americans got. I know that my grandmother on my father’s side also went to college, and her degree was also in education, and she also went on to teach elementary school. On both sides. And my grandfather, her husband—my biological father’s father—also did education. I think he was maybe the principal, maybe taught college level at some point.
The other things I remember about them were just airplanes, stocks, you know. News. Running. Exercise. He was way into exercise. He was a runner and he had his own kind of gym set up in the garage, too, which he would do every other day, or so. Yeah, he was pretty into it. Pretty into keeping his body healthy. This is in the early seventies, and all the way through. He died of Parkinson’s in his eighties.
When you were small you moved to Southern California?
We moved when I was four, we drove out with my soon-to-be step-father.
So your mother had met your soon-to-be step-father in Ohio and they decided to move out West.
What did he do?
He was a physicist and he started doing his PhD-slash-teaching at UCLA, and I don’t know why he stopped. It would have been great if he kept going. I think in retrospect he wished he did. Anyway, he went into the computer business field in sales and marketing and managing with IBM, probably soon after we got there. Probably—I’m not sure, exactly—but probably ’71, ’72. We got there in ’70, ’69—something like that. He did that, and then he switched to Apple sometime after high school, so somewhere around ’85, or so. And then, let’s see… Maybe he got laid off sometime, maybe two, three years after that, and then worked for LexisNexis until maybe the last ten years or so. They moved to Ohio for a little while when he was with them. When I was done with high school, we basically stayed in Southern California—until somewhere around ’84, they moved to San Francisco, and they’ve been in San Francisco ever since, more or less.
They went to Ohio for about two or three years, came back, and then he worked with a non-profit for—he’s retired now—maybe the last ten years. Basically, helping people to start businesses, something like that. My mother was a social worker until my brother was born. So she worked until ’82, ’83, and then she stopped working. So basically, I grew up with working parents, and my brother grew up with one working parent.
I know a little bit about your early interest in drawing and illustration. What were you drawing? Who were your models?
I was into illustration.
Graphics, or comics, or fine art?
Fine art and… fine-art illustration—not so much comics—and realism. So, illustration-slash-beginning to paint, but not yet. Escher probably was my favorite at the time when I was in high school. And then, let’s see… think about other people I like… who were my favorites at the time, thinking about illustrators? It’s so long ago I forgot. [Laughs.] But I tended to like the old masters, like Van Dyck, or like Caravaggio… Dali, Magritte, also. Mainly because they’re also realists, but another version of realism.
Then there were your ska years and break-dance years, which I remember from our last conversation.
[Laughs.] That’s true. I have to admit it. Yep, they’re all there.
You loved The Selecter.
Yeah, The Selecter. The Specials. 999. Yeah. The Jam. Gary Numan.
You’d go to that section of the record store every week?
Yeah, pretty much, in high school.
Imports, that’s right, you got it. I was kind of into ska and maybe early punk and new wave. And I was also listening to jazz at the same time via my parent’s records and bootlegs and things.
And around that same time is the first time I heard [the trumpeter] Tom Harrell. I had this tape, this guy said, “Oh, this is Tom Harrell.” I had no idea who that was.
How did that come into your life?
I don’t know. I was in high school, someone gave it to me saying, “Listen to this trumpet player.”
Yeah, a student, I don’t remember who it was.
Were you playing in a high school jazz ensemble?
To be in a jazz ensemble you had to be in marching band, so I was in marching band. And I was in a jazz ensemble starting in sophomore year, so three years of that. And also when you’re doing that you could also play—in the summer they did musicals—so you’d play in the pit orchestra and have your doubles happening too, and play in the jazz band and the marching band. So all that stuff was happening at the same time. Tom Harrell… I didn’t even listen to [the tape] until later, but I really loved it. I also had a saxophone teacher who played a Conn and was really into Lester Young, Zoot Sims, and Al Cohn: those were his guys, and early Dexter [Gordon].
What town was your high school in?
It was in Palos Verdes.
Just south of the South Bay. And you were in high school when?
From ’80 to ’84.
That’s also punk-rock time, in the South Bay.
Exactly. All that. I didn’t get a chance to see any of those bands personally, but… I would have had to sneak out. I was a good boy. I had friends that did, they would kind of give me information.
All right, let’s jump way forward. Your last record, Lathe of Heaven, felt a bit to me like: finally. Up until then, for about twenty years, there was much to say about your own sound and technique in various situations, some of them not your own groups. You yourself were influential; you, at least the isolated you, were the sound of your time in jazz. But here there’s the greater entity of a band, of compositions and arrangements. With Lathe of Heaven it’s harder to subtract you from the music, the music doesn’t sound like anybody else’s; it isn’t the typical music of its time. Do you think there’s any truth to that?
I do, yeah, I absolutely do. I think it’s nice that you heard it. I always feel like whatever it is that I’m doing or whatever I’m coming from is so—if you don’t mind my saying—it always feels so in-between. Not quite this, not quite that, maybe weird, semi-into this genre or this crowd, not enough. So it always seems like it’s difficult, except for maybe a few people, to hear what I’m trying to say, and it feels like you have to make a very obvious, forthright mark to say, “This is what I’m doing,” and kind of wear it on your sleeve. And I think that’s total bullshit, I’m not feeling it at all.
So, I made this record and I was just like, “This is it. This is me. This is what I’m doing. And that’s it.”
You mean you’re wary of being different for the sake of being different?
Exactly. I’m not into that. It’s too easy to do that, you know? And it’s also too easy to be the same.
Did you feel that the Warners Bros. records of the late nineties and early 2000s—the records that many know you by—were representing you correctly?
I felt like the last one, Dharma Days, was the beginning of representing what was going on with me. I played in so many other situations that one record would never really represent me, because part of what I am is all these other bands that I’m in. Anyway, of all the ones that I’ve made, that one was probably the most representative—I wouldn’t say it represented all of me, but it did something. It definitely wasn’t wrong. Whatever that means.
Do you have strong feelings about how jazz—in the section of the jazz world that you interact with—has changed, musically, over the last fifteen years?
Okay, ah, let’s see. Basically, the section that I play in… I don’t know what to call it. Modern mainstream? Something like that. I think the main thing, probably the most significant thing, is the role of the drums and—I hate to say “metrics,” but—time. That’s the main thing that’s changed. Or that’s evolved, that’s more in the forefront. I think it’s very exciting. I really like that it’s evolving, that the drums and rhythm in general is stepping to the front more. That’s kind of the undiscovered country of this type of music, this section of jazz.
Do you think the new role of rhythm is changing the way you compose, write melodies, phrase?
Such as thinking about what Marcus [Gilmore, the drummer] would be doing?
For sure, absolutely. The way I practice and the way I think about time has changed over the years, it’s evolved. I mean, we were thinking about it already back then; of course, when in the late nineties I started to play standards in other meters and things like that, that was the beginning of all that, you know. And then it’s just continued to evolve from there. So I think we were already—“we,” I’ll say myself—trying to learn to practice melodies so they were not always landing in placement of twos and fours, and maybe threes, maximum.
So, yeah, when I write melodies, I’m thinking about that. A lot of times I’m thinking about: what’s the rhythm section going to play? That’s always been the case, long before us. I mean, I think great American music is always thinking about the rhythm. Even if it’s a flowing melody, the rhythm is always in there. That’s my personal opinion. That’s the best stuff to me.
Do you think the change has been in the direction of a more complex articulation of rhythm?
Absolutely. Complex articulation, and a fuller integration of it, too. You know, integration in the sense that it feels natural, not forced or intellectually necessary to put it there to say, “Look, I can do this now,” so on and so forth. I just think it’s taken many years of hearing the music, people hearing how… I hate to use the word “metrics”… space is being used in terms of time, and figuring out different ways to do it with harmony. That’s the hard part. Sometimes it’s been done before, but without harmony, or without complex harmony and melody.
The trick, in my opinion, is to do it with complex melody, harmony, and form—to have all of those mixed together. I think the evolution is happening that way, as opposed to just having it over one or two chords. Not that that’s easy, but when you mix it with playing a complex form and melody and harmony, it’s harder. And it can’t be more rewarding.
Who do you think are the great forces of this new rhythmic tendency in the last—well, we’ve been saying fifteen years, but I think that’s about right.
Yeah, I think that’s about right. I think it happens on many levels on different instruments, you know. Drummers for sure: Marcus, Tyshawn [Sorey]—obviously. Those two in terms of drummers are the top of my list for that. The others are probably in different levels—I wouldn’t say different levels, but—different shades of this section.
And not just drummers.
No, not just drummers. Everybody. Off the top of my head, any instrument… David Virelles [the pianist], for sure. I mean, all the way in, in my opinion. Super bad. I just get excited hearing that shit, just calling his name is exciting. Super integrated, just incredible. But also Jason Moran, in another way, you know. He was already doing it in really subtle ways. Sometimes I think the whole metric or space thing—I mean “space” when I say time—is related with being really specific, and having it land on a certain beat. It also means just having a sensibility of playing that way, but not necessarily, you know, whatever, fifteen, sixteen, five, whatever.
Let me keep going… saxophone players—I mean, of course I have to mention Steve Coleman. If it weren’t for him, I don’t think any of this would ever have happened. I think he’s the forefather—he and that whole scene, but he kind of kept it going. I don’t think any of us, when I was in college in my early twenties, would have even thought about playing standards in other meters. I think everything he’s doing just kind of trickled in and then, twenty-five, thirty years later now it’s come into the mainstream. That’s my feeling about it. So I have to say that.
As culture moves through time, you can point to one tendency and say, “that’s what’s going on.” But often, at the same time, the opposite tendency is happening, too. We were just talking about the growing complexity of rhythm, but do you think that your music in some ways has gotten simpler?
In some ways, for sure. Simpler, with little bits of complexity. I agree with that. How can I put it? Trying to keep the complexity, but just maybe pare it down to the essentials, so that’s kind of why, obviously—no chordal instruments, wider spaces. Still a lot of harmony, but more time for it to happen, so you can hear it.
No chordal instruments, wider spaces. Is this the sound that you have been working on, or that you had in your head for a while leading up to Lathe of Heaven?
Definitely no chordal instruments, yes. I’d say definitely more space, because my earlier music was a little too dense, but I wasn’t sure how to get the feeling of the density and have the complexity without the density, you know. So, I still wanted to get the complexity—especially the harmony and the form—but have it be a little bit wider, more spacious, just because I like space, I like air, I’m from the West Coast, I want that to happen, however that is. And also more space in the sense that much of the music that I love, from any genre, has that space in it.
Like what? If you could pick three examples that are far apart.
Well, Miles in the sixties. That has piles of space, all the complexity you want, all the blues and soulfulness you want. That has everything in it, especially in the sixties. But even early Miles, that is, ’51, ’52—“Yesterdays,” “My Old Flame”—man. That’s the shit. Space, like… the first name that comes to mind is Stevie Wonder. You know, what’s that one where—I just remember my parents playing it all the time. The one where he’s wearing the dashiki and sitting on the sand… Talking Book. Anyway, “Blame it on the Sun” is the one I think of, if anything. That is super beautiful, spacious, soulful, dry. And then, you know, of course—
Yeah, it’s dry to me: the recording, the delivery. It’s soulful, but it’s not wet—like, you know, it could be juicy: the recording could have more reverb or the delivery could be slightly overdone. But it’s never overdone, it’s always dry and powerful, concentrated. That’s what he sounds like to me.
Yeah, and of course, you know, Warne Marsh, Lee Konitz. Or… what’s that record? Similar vibe to me, lots of space… the saxophone sounds are rich but dry… or the clarinet sounds… Jimmy Giuffre.
You mean the music with Paul Bley?
Yes, with Paul Bley and Steve Swallow.1 I equate those similar genres, at least in the way that the space and the music is similar. The tunes are different, okay, you know one’s always playing in time with swing, but it’s very similar to me. Similar aesthetic.
Oh, classical music, yeah, Erik Satie. You know, super-spacious, dry, almost laconic. Powerful. There are other ones, too, but that’s the first. Also, Morton Feldman, also like that: dry, powerful, repetitious, making his point very slowly, but very richly at the same time. Those are quick examples. You get the idea, right?
Sure. Here’s another idea: in the nineties, one of the first ways I tried to understand what you were on to was to think about how you seemed to be striving for a kind of equal strength in all registers of your saxophone playing. The other night, when I heard you at the Jazz Standard with Billy Hart’s group, I wondered if that idea can be expanded to this: When you are improvising, do you have a sense that you want every part of the improvisation, as it unfolds through time, to be equally important? People think about jazz improvisation as a narrative with some sort of arc. Some parts are obviously the dramatic highs, and some parts are coming down off of that. As I listened to you, I thought: “Maybe he doesn’t think that way. Maybe he wants everything to be essentially on the same plane.”
I hear you, yeah. I think there’s a lot of truth to that. I’m definitely interested in the pacing. So, when you take a solo, thinking about the pacing, depending on the rhythm section, and the song and the content, and how you’re going to play based on that. For example, you can go in and just play, and let things happen the way they’re going to happen. But often it can be all too easy to follow the same arc all the time, you know.
It seems like, recently, especially in the last fifteen years, there’s the Golden Mean arc. Which I feel like Trane began: start more or less kind of slow… come to the huge, “Go to the top of the mountain! I’m exploring every possibility! Hero, sax player, trumpet player!” And a little after two-thirds, you come down. And that’s considered the perfect solo. I totally disagree with that. I think it’s a good one, sometimes, on certain songs, with certain kinds of forms, with certain rhythm sections. But don’t do it on every goddamn fucking solo. Hell-fucking-no. I’m not into it.
So, yes, I think that it’s important. You should have equal intensity in any part of the solo. Through the low register, whether it’s soft, whether it’s loud. Sometimes you’re just supporting the others, even though you’re in front, according to what the piano player is playing, making his voicing sound good. Whatever it is, in my opinion, it should be of equal intensity, it should be just as important and powerful as when you’re playing loud, sexy, bluesy, whatever. I think this horn-player-hero stuff is not the best way to do it, necessarily.
Do you think it’s putting the emphasis on the wrong things?
Is it disingenuous?
Yes, it can be. I think for some people who really love that and do it, it’s not disingenuous. But for everyone to be striving for that always on every solo all the time? No.
The peak arriving at two-thirds of the way through the solo can seem almost natural.
It is natural. Or, I think that curve is natural. Yeah, yeah, I think so. I just think that the way it manifests, especially with saxophone players, the way that it’s accessed, tends to be in one direction. What Coltrane started—I mean, that era: that was the beginning. Just before that, if you think about bebop solos, they’re more flat. I think that usually, yes, it will become more intense in that [two-thirds] area, but not as much. It’s more about content and placement and swing than drama. Drama is good—but not all the time, not only, on most songs.
Do you have to trick yourself sometimes into not doing it the two-thirds way?
I used to. At one time I did. I deliberately would not do it.
How would you not do that? Would you start by thinking about how you would end the solo?
Sometimes. Sometimes, for example, I would think about a shape. One would be a tune from the bebop era—you know, really content, and with swing, and the intensity comes from just that. If you listen to a Charlie Parker solo, you know, Fats Navarro, or Bud Powell, it’s like this the whole time. [Makes horizontal-line gesture with his hand.]
Yeah, kind of even! It’s really intense, but you never get to that huge rush, you know, that orgasmic rush, that you get starting in the sixties, later on. Which is great, we all love it sometimes, but not every time.
So, okay, then you think about the tune. If it’s a tune with a lot of changes, even if it’s not necessarily bebop changes, where there are a lot of chords, just play like that. Just keep the intensity and think more about the placement and all those other things, and keep it like that the whole time. And just get intense. I mean, if you wanna get more intense, think about playing better notes—instead of just playing louder. [Laughs.]
The energy is happening anyway, but it can happen many ways. It can happen where you place the notes; it can happen on what notes you play in the chord; it can happen based on, yes, playing louder notes; it can be bending the notes. It can happen many different ways. So I thought what’s interesting about it is trying to use your imagination, and trying to figure out how many ways can you access that energy when it happens. Don’t just go for the easiest one—which can be good, sometimes go for the easiest one, but also try these other ones and see what they do. And sometimes something else happens, and then you improvise more.
So that was kind of part of it. Sometimes I would say, “Okay, I’m going to follow that.” Or the other one is peaks and valleys. I always think about, like, Miles in the sixties is peaks and valleys. Those guys would—you know, you probably hear it, you know what I’m talking about—especially when they played standards, like on that record My Funny Valentine, or those live records with George Coleman. And they played standards, especially on the—actually, on the horn solos, too—but especially on the rhythm section solos. You know, on the first A, maybe second A, maybe the B will be like this, maybe the bridge will be really high, it will come down a little bit, then it’ll go up, then it’ll go way down, and then it maybe ends somewhere in the middle. You know, it won’t necessarily follow the Golden Mean curve. And that’s what it needed to do. Your narrative is totally different. It can be different, you go in a few different rooms.
So, for example, I just try to do it like that, depending on the tune—the tune might ask for that. You can see a lot of times, when you look at the tune, okay, it has four or five different places. You basically need four or five different valleys to be in it. So let’s see what we can do with those areas, instead of forcing a preconceived idea of how we’re going to play it on it—which is usually the Golden Mean thing. Like, “I’m going to come to a climax even if this section does not want me to come to a climax.”
And the other is: sometimes playing kind of like, I think Keith Jarrett used to play like that a lot—I think that’s where I ran into it—playing fast tempos, and you come to a climax and you stop at the climax. You don’t come down at all, you just get to an intense place and just let it go. And the rhythm section, you know, the intensity will be there and somebody else will have to pick it up. You don’t finish it for them.
So I worked on that. In a way you’re thinking about it ahead of time because you’re practicing it—maybe with records, maybe by yourself. And then, also when you’re in the situation, you know, actually being able to spot the tune, see what the tune’s going to tell you to do, navigate that, and see if you can play this way over it, so on and so forth.
I’m sure students come to you and say, “Teach me how to do what you do.”
Do they ever talk about that, specifically—methods of avoiding clichéd solo narratives?
What are they concentrating on?
Oh, it’s usually notes and altissimo and harmony. Sometimes voice leading. Some have asked about the pacing or, you know, how do you get a lot from very little. Things like that. Some of them have asked those questions. But usually just a few students do.
From a distance, your career as a bandleader looks strange: thirteen years between the newest album, in 2014, and the one before it. Does it look strange to you, too?
I have a few reasons. One is that right after I made that last Warner record my daughter was born, and then my son soon after that—or our daughter and our son.
And your daughter is now…?
She’s now sixteen. And my son is thirteen. My wife was working full time. Basically, I wanted to be present. I didn’t want to be on the road all the time, getting divorced, not knowing my kids. I felt like in order to do music in a satisfying way, I was spreading myself too thin to try and lead a band and try to play the saxophone decently halfway… So I just pared things down until my kids got older and it was a little easier at home.
And also: I like being a sideman. I like playing in other bands. I like the challenge of doing that. Yes, I would have liked to do both, but—I guess the thing about being a band leader is: there’s the music part, and there’s all this other stuff you have to deal with. And I just didn’t have the energy to deal with it, you know, when my kids were young. I feel like that kind of energy, which is basically extra-musical, social, navigating all this stuff, I’d rather just do that with my kids and practice and get better at the saxophone. You know, just keep it simple.
Are you a Buddhist?
I am, yes.
How does your life as a Buddhist figure into any of this?
I don’t know. I’ll just add: I’m not a very good Buddhist. [Laughs.] Whatever, I’m doing the best I can. It definitely keeps things in perspective. It helps me to manage my mind. I mean, that’s what it’s supposed to do. That’s what it does. You know, playing itself, it helps with that. And managing all the ups and downs of being in the music-slash-art world, because there’s all sorts of other stuff that’s going on with it that one can easily get caught up with. Being worried about—whatever, you know what I mean. Like, are people checking me out? Do I sound bad? Do I sound good?
And that’s part of it, you have to think about those things, but putting too much emphasis on them can be unsettling and can get in the way of what you’re trying to do, which is play music.
Do you meditate every day?
Yeah, it’s a daily thing. In the past, I’ve missed days more often, but there’s never a time period where I don’t sit and meditate for a week. It might be a day or two, but… in the last year or two I’ve become stricter, I don’t miss a day at all. There’s a certain practice I’m doing where I actually mark the days that I do it.
How long do you sit for?
It’s actually prostrations and sitting, so… I basically sit until I feel like it’s time to get up. [Laughs.] But, you know, until your mind feels more or less settled. “Settled” meaning not continuous thoughts racing through your mind. If I have the time to wait until that point happens where it’s more or less quiet, then it could take—who knows? It could be any amount of time. But, if you want to know the amount of minutes—the prostration part is anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half. Plus sitting, so it’s more or less that. Sometimes it will be forty minutes, sometimes… It depends on how much time I have.
What kind of Buddhism are you engaged in?
It’s the Gelug sect of Tibetan Buddhism. I don’t know how much you know about it, but that’s the one that the Dalai Lama is the head of. And then there are other people—other Lamas—that are also part of it, but that’s the one that he runs. He’s a Gelug monk.
I’m curious about what was happening with your own group before Lathe of Heaven, because I may not have been following it very closely.
Oh, nothing was happening anyway.
Is that true?
Yeah, I was just a sideman. I played with my band until maybe 2001, and that was it.
And so the other members of your group—Joe [Martin, bassist] and Avishai [Cohen, trumpeter] and Marcus [Gilmore]—you just knew from different situations.
Yep, exactly. We were all side men together in different bands.
Well, Joe and Marcus, we’ve been playing with Gilad [Hekselman, guitarist]. And I’d known Joe in other bands, like—I don’t remember all the bands, but a lot of different bands with him. And Marcus with a few other bands, too—one or two. There was this really weird Turkish guitar player—not memorable—but we did the gig anyway. I remember that gig because that was the first time I’d heard about [Marcus], the first time I’d played with him. And he fucking played the cymbal, and I was like, “Holy fucking shit.” Shit was so killing. Just, like, everything. And I told the guitar player, “Did you hear how fucking bad this guy is?” He’s just playing. I was like, “All right, I’m sorry: how could you fucking miss that?” I mean, of course you can miss it for various reasons. And I think [Marcus] was subbing for Tyshawn [Sorey], so I think [the guitarist’s] vibe was: “Oh, this is a young guy who is not as happening as Tyshawn.” And I was like, “Uh, maybe you don’t have the right fucking idea?” It was like, un-fucking-believable. Anyway, we played with some others… Some other situations, you know, like one-time situations at Jazz Gallery. And then Avishai with Omer [Avital]’s band and one or two other situations. And then the [SFJazz] Collective. But, you know the scene. Everybody is interchanging in other people’s bands all the time.
Yes. Anyway, this new band, this record: The writing is different. The whole band sound is different. It sounds more purposeful.
Yeah, it is. I don’t know how. Probably a lot of it was intuitive. But I spent a lot of time thinking about it.
It’s kind of like all the things I’ve wanted to hear from a record: the lengths of the tunes, the types of tunes, their tempos, the types of harmony on each tune, which sections will be—you know, like, a fair amount of tunes, some where you just play them straight through, kind of like flowing playing; some tunes with sections fast and slow within them; so on and so forth. I just wanted all these layers to be taken care of, you know? Again, in a way that’s not worn on the sleeve.
One way to do that, of course, is, like I said before, by not having chords. But not having a chordal instrument does more than just give you freedom. It actually scales everything back, so that you have to listen a little bit more. And it makes things less obvious. So, for example, if these things were played with chords, I would have changed the harmony. This allowed me to write harmony that I wouldn’t have with chords. Sometimes I made the harmony a little more forthright so it would stand out with just three voices. And in the sections where I wanted the harmony to be a bit more complex, you know, it’s tricky with three voices to make it heard.
I forgot to mention, also: part of the reason we’re doing it is that I was trying to get myself to be able to write stronger melodies and stronger form, in order to make it heard without chords. When you have chords, you can kind of do anything you want. Not really, but you can get away with a lot of things you shouldn’t do, myself included. Like, form mishaps, harmony mishaps, melody mishaps. You know, if somebody plays the chord you can write any melody, it could be terrible. “Terrible” meaning that the voice-leading isn’t correct, you should have played this before you went to that. So, without chords, you can’t really make those mistakes. It’s much more fine-tuned. When it does happen it can be very clear.
Anyway, yes, it was purposeful. I'll give an example: there’s a tune on there that’s got a long form. I wanted to be able to write a long form that has all this stuff going on without chords, which could be boring—I mean to me it’s not boring, maybe other people think it’s boring, but—it’s basically one that has a groove. It starts with me playing alone and just playing this kind of laconic melody. And then the bass and drums come in, and the bass plays this thing, this line, and he’s really playing the melody. And basically everything comes in step by step, really slowly, until at the end it becomes more full.
Which tune is that?
“Brother Sister 2.”
The last one.
Yeah. That’s the one where there’s a lot going on, and it’s kind of taking a chance because it’s slow.
It is slow.
And so I had to make sure that certain things were clear—at least clear to me. Melody’s strong, introduction to each part is fairly strong so you’re ready to hear the next part when the trumpet comes in. The composition is strong, you know, in the sense that you’re ready to hear each part. Harmony—there’s a part where harmony comes in. I thought it out through all these different issues, different things that happen step-by-step. That’s one where there’s a version with chords, but it was originally written so that it could be played without chords. So the version we play is the version that I intended to write. So that’s the long-form tune that has sections and stuff like that with complex harmony, and complex harmony can only happen with melody. That’s the thing about it. So a lot of the times when someone might write complex harmony, they have the piano player do it, so you can just sit down and say, “Did you hear all those badass chords?” Which is great. But in this case, you have to have melodies. Everyone has to have a part. You can’t just play the chords, because no one’s doing it.
Your daughter’s going to be a junior next year?
That’s right. Wow. I’m an old dad.
So you’re still in the thick of it.
Yes, I am.
Do you think of a five-year plan? Do you think of a ten-year plan?
Do you really?
For your own work?
Absolutely. For myself, for my own work, for my saxophone playing, whatever I’m going to do. Compositions, things like that. Definitely got plans written in little books. I have a five-year plan, a three-year plan, one-year plan, for myself, and everything.
Yeah, for myself and, you know, what I’d like to see the kids doing, what my wife’s going to be doing, what we’re going to do to the house. A lot of those things that I’m mentioning—things about myself—much of that comes from being around my grandparents. I didn’t ever actually see my grandfather write down a five-year plan, but he definitely thought his life out. Definitely thought about: “Okay, I’m going to be doing this.” I could tell. You know, ’cause he got shit done.
Is there something you’re dying to do within the next, let’s say, three or five years?
Yes. I definitely want to run a marathon.
Oh, you’ve never done that?
Never done it. I could, but my Achilles is holding me back. Definitely half-marathons, but…
Have you been running for a long time?
I guess so—I mean, consistently? I guess maybe ten years? And then more and more… maybe I should clarify: I don’t necessarily want to do an organized marathon. I want to run a marathon distance. So, the half marathons I’ve run have been by myself. I don’t necessarily want to be in competition. The only reason I’d do it with the competition is because of the medical help if I don’t make it, but that’s the only reason. I’d rather just do it by myself and eventually if I can start running farther I’d rather run alone. That’s the shit. I don’t like running with—I don’t want the competition or anything like that.
And I want to get better at composition. I need to figure it out. I want to be able to write faster. That kind of holds me back in terms of getting records out and bands. In the next two to three years I want to be able to get that going. Not that I just want to put out a lot of records, but there are a lot of musicians I want to play with, configurations I want to do, that I can’t do unless I get the music written. There’s some people I’d like to study with. Two in particular: Guillermo Klein, of course, he’s great at teaching composition. And another friend of mind who’s a composer, he lives in Belgium, he basically writes operas. He’s a classical composer. He’s a jazz piano player, but he’s a classical composer, so he went all the way in that direction.
What’s his name?
Kris Defoort. I think he’s written maybe two or three [operas] by now. I think I’m going to be doing one with him in 2018 where I’m just playing the saxophone part and whatever he has for me. And maybe [study] with him, if possible, by correspondence. And then, as a result, I’d like to be able to put out a lot of records. I mean, “a lot” like one every year and a half in the next five years—if I can.
Do you still like records, per se? When you hear one that seems great, do you think, “that’s what I want to do”?
Yes, that’s the shit! Totally, I’m totally into it. Records—I like [vinyl] albums.
Oh, man. CDs—something that’s longer than fifty-five minutes is already an issue. I mean, sixty minutes… that’s long.
You like forced concision, time constraints. Fifty minutes?
The first fifty minutes, or forty-five minutes. I mean, okay, it’s great to have a lot of music. But I feel like to really take it in, forty minutes is enough. Fifty minutes—that’s it. That’s my opinion, you know. More isn’t necessarily better. Fifty minutes, check it out. If you want more music, listen to another record. I mean, at least for jazz, for this kind of music. That’s my opinion.
What about the newer possibilities for putting your music out in the world—not that all of them are good for making a living…
Oh, like having a track, or…?
A single track online, or a 24-hour performance, or whatever.
I don’t know, man. I haven’t really checked. I’m kind of old-school, I guess. I don’t know, maybe I’ll open up to it, but… Live music, short records. Fifty minutes or less. CDs or LPs, that’s what I like. I’m open, I just haven’t really… I’m not really that interested.
You like the full fifty-minute arc? You like to listen to it from beginning to end?
Absolutely. I tend to listen to things and just get into one thing for a long time. I’m not so into jumping around. It just doesn’t make sense to me. It’s just too superficial, in my opinion. Other people can get it really fast. It takes me a long time. I have to do it again and again.
Purchase your copy of the full volume featuring Mark Turner here.
Mark Turner is an American jazz saxophonist. His latest album as leader, Lathe of Heaven, was released on ECM Records in 2014.
Ben Ratliff wrote about jazz for the New York Times from 1996 to 2016. He teaches at New York University and is the author of books including Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty and Coltrane: The Story of a Sound.
Banner image: Mark Turner (left) with Baptiste Trotignon in Paris, 2013. Photo by Thomas Dorn. Courtesy of Baptiste Trotignon.