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Mark Turner

A pair of long overdue reissues (on HighNote) have brightened my CD player in the last month and led me to appreciate the renaissance of the jazz tradition in our New York jazz scene today. Back in 1973, the Onyx label issued a series of LP's taken from the Jerry Newman collection. Newman had been a student at Columbia University and befriended many of the musicians who played at the uptown clubs. These location recordings give us an unprecedented glimpse into a world of music making that could not be further removed from the sterility of the recording studio. Art Tatum – God Is In The House has a lot of solo piano, some of which was played on instruments that would have stymied many a lesser player. Tatum, judging by the evidence, seems to have been inspired by their inherent limitations. There is a marvelous story about him playing a piano with keys that stuck after being struck. He would play a run with his right hand, and then pick the keys back up with his left! But the real revelations are the two tracks with the long neglected trumpeter Frank Newton. There is nothing in his recorded legacy that approaches the level of musical ingenuity, humor and swing that he achieves on Sweet Georgia Brown and Lady Be Good. Indeed, these performances trump the great majority of the Norman Granz produced Tatum Group Masterpieces from the mid-'50s. As Dan Morgenstern, whose album notes for the Onyx series are among his best ever, wrote about the Tatum-Newton sides, "(one of) the most remarkable pieces of spontaneously improvised jazz music ever captured by a recording device." Dan is not known for hyperbole – they are that great.

The other reissue is a collection of performances that caught the Texan trumpeter Oran "Hot Lips" Page in a variety of jam sessions. Thelonious Monk, Donald Lambert (who like Newton, is heard for the first time in all his greatness) and Kenny Clarke are also heard to great advantage. One element that runs through both albums is the sheer joy of swinging jazz, which is always a good tonic for whatever ails you. For folks like me, who began a life in jazz as a record collector and who still can't pass up some obscure 78 or LP that there is no room for in the house, the temptation to remain holed up reveling in the sounds of yesteryear remains. It is always a good restorative to contemplate that if Jerry Newman had done the same thing, our knowledge of musicians like Tatum, Page, Charlie Christian and many others would be severely diminished. And as great as repeated listening to masterpieces can be, jazz remains, as Whitney Balliett put it many years ago, the sound of surprise, and that can only truly be experienced hearing live music unfold in front of you.

One of the great surprises to long time observers of the New York jazz scene has been the emergence of a generation of players who are grounded in the tradition of the music. They know their Jelly Roll, Louis and Ellington, as well as their Mingus, Ornette and Coltrane. Many favor an acoustic sound, especially the bass players. The definition of the quarter note has reemerged and the long, amplified notes that muddied up so many rhythm sections is gradually disappearing. There is also a growing sense of inclusiveness between the musicians and the audience, without the lowering of the musical common denominator that one encounters in so –called "smooth jazz".

The young musicians who can do all this and more include: the pianists Marcus Roberts and Bill Charlap, the saxophonists Mark Turner, Scott Robinson, Jon Gordon and Todd Williams (who has taken himself out of public performance to teach), the trumpeters Marcus Printup, Ryan Kisor, Jon Erik Kelso and Randy Sandke, the trombonists Wycliffe Gordon and Mike Christianson, the clarinetist Ken Peplowski, and the drummer Ali Jackson. There are many other players who share these qualities – it is only space limitation that cuts it off here. On any given night any of these musicians can be caught in some New York nightspot aiming towards the kind of magic that Jerry Newman captured lo those many years ago. We would do the music and ourselves a whole lot of good if we made it a point to seek and support what's happening now. After all, no one was claiming that what was going on in 1940 was any sort of "golden era" at the time. Indeed, the seeds of the traditionalist/purist/Condon schools of thought that disavowed virtually anything new in the music were already getting set to harden their musical arteries.

The issue gets complicated when we confront the players who dedicated themselves to the tradition throughout the decades when it wasn't appreciated. Where are clubs and their attendant audiences that would let us hear Ruby Braff, Kenny Davern, Jay McShann and their peers in New York on anything approaching a regular basis?

Jazz record labels have been serving up "the new boy/girl" on the block for decades now. Countless singers and players on virtually every instrument (save a few oddities, such as the ocarina and the serpent) have been touted as the one to watch, and certainly as the one to buy. Nowhere has this been more prevalent than among young tenor saxophonists, and the '90s seems to have borne more than its share of "young titans" from whom precious little was heard once the major label in question unceremoniously dropped them - usual before arriving at the advanced age of a quarter-century.turner.jpg - 9.90 K

What a pleasure, then, to see a player who has attained the grand old age of one score and twelve (a veritable Methuselah by "Young Lion" standards) become the Warner Brothers poster boy of the month - saxophonist Mark Turner. Even more pleasurable is his mature conception, which seems to be founded on a precept lost to the great majority of jazz players since the advent of John Coltrane, and that is that there is such a thing as SPACE in improvisation, and as Count Basie, Lester Young and Thelonious Monk proved decades ago, rests can have at least as much significance as notes in an improvised solo.

The first time I heard Turner was a few years back when his debut disc "Yam Yam" (CRISS CROSS (HOL) 6731 1094 2) came out, and the track that intrigued me was "Blues", which, unlike its generic title, turned out to be a real composition, with an original series of solos by Turner, pianist Brad Mehldau and the guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel (believe it or not, a post-Frisell player) sandwiched in between an intriguing theme, with sections both in tempo and rubato. One could hear echoes of Lester Young and Charlie Christian throughout, but not in any "period" sense - this was jazz of the '90s. The other performances on the disc revealed themselves to be the "Blues" equal. Coltrane's "Moment's Notice" was rendered in a reflective mode, far from the obsessive fill-in-the dots manner to which so many of his compositions of that genre are subjected.

Not long thereafter, I went to the appropriately named jazz club, Small's, and heard the late pianist Mercedes Rossy's quintet, which featured Tucker and alto saxophonist Steve Wilsonin a set of music that reflected many aspects of the Tristano-Marsh-Konitz recordings. It was clear that Turner was really into Warne Marsh (this is unusual; his reflection of Lovano is more in keeping with the "norm" these days), and had blended it with a deep understanding of Coltrane's methods and come out with something refreshingly new.

Last year, Warner put Turner together with James Moody, and has now issued "Mark Turner" (WEA/WARNER BROTHERS 7599 46701 2), in which Joshua Redman is gratuitously added to three tracks (including the opening one), presumably for box office appeal. Surprisingly, this major label debut is a 1995 session, and based on reports from his mid-April gig at Sweet Basil's, what the world needs now is a 1998 Turner solo effort, without the distraction of a "tenor summit". Let's hope Warner Brothers sticks with this young man and gives him a chance to establish himself in his rightful place, as one of the best of his generation.