Mark Turner is one of the most compelling saxophonists around. The two albums he’s recorded with Larry Grenadier and Jeff Ballard under the trio name Fly both count among my most-played albums of recent years. He has also recorded for ECM under the leadership of Enrico Rava (the superb New York Days), as well as Billy Hart and Stefano Bollani.
The six pieces here—all composed by Turner—are typically rangy, lithe, and slippery, time-wise, despite their compositional linearity. The composer’s muse is methodical, even contemplative, and the Quartet realise his music via a penetrating examination of its melodic essence.
Turner and Cohen’s long, unhurried disquisitions on the former’s compositions—their concurrent solos on the title piece entwine in lithe progressions to bright, uptempo melodic heads and volatile concluding reckonings—are central to the album’s appeal. Neither are garrulous soloists. Where others, particularly improvising musicians, might riffle away in flurries of notes or play in series of forceful, stentorian lung-bursts, Turner and Cohen shape searching, long-form lines with implacable purpose. In this, they are well matched by their rhythm section: “Year of the Rabbit” (a counterpart to Fly’s “Year of the Snake”) is long, languidly discursive, and rhythmically buoyant thanks to Gilmore’s snappy percussion and an indubitable bounce in Martin’s insouciantly elastic bassline.
Turner has a very simpatico relationship with trumpeter Avishai Cohen, who elsewhere leads a trio with bassist Omer Avital and drummer Nasheet Waits. He knows bassist Joe Martin from long association, and Martin forged his bond with drummer Marcus Gilmore in a group led by Israeli guitarist Gilad Kekselman. Turner rightly—and tellingly—credits Martin and Gimore with “an ability to extrapolate while still holding things down – the rhythm, melody, the form.”
“Ethan’s Line” nods to Ethan Iverson, Turner’s colleague in the Billy Hart Quartet. Turner and Cohen never stray far from the composition’s tight, hooky melodic theme, yet Turner extrapolates some questing, soulful soloing. On the more urgent “The Edenist”, a tune inspired by the Sci-Fi novels of Peter F. Hamilton, it’s Cohen who ranges out. Neither experiments with extended technique, both being focused on tonal exactitude and melodic felicity.
“Sonnet for Stevie” was first essayed, in a more concise form, and with a swing feel, on the Billy Hart Quartet album One is the Other. Here, Turner delves deeper into blues abstractions, and plays variations on what he describes as “a reference, kind of melodic quote” from Stevie Wonder’s “Blame it on the Sun”.
Another revisitation, “Brother Sister 2” returns to a theme first heard on Fly’s Year of the Snake. Turner plays a haunting take on the theme, and the rhythm section kick in at a languid pace, only for all three to drop out and the piece to begin again, this time with Cohen soloing. He’s shadowed by Turner while Martin’s double bass departs on an elliptical, more pacey tangent. The bassist’s rangy peregrination sets the tone for a discursive nest of restive soloing at the heart of the performance. When every initiative seems spent, Martin brings everything back to that theme, and to Turner and Cohen’s final, close unison sustain.
It’s great to see Turner becoming a regular on ECM, while the European label continues to support a new class of American talent. It’s a great match. Turner’s music sits more comfortably alongside the New York projects of its brace of impeccable Italian trumpet players, Enrico Rava and Tomasz Stanko, than next to ECM albums by ‘downtowners’ David Torn and Tim Berne, Ralph Alessi or Michael Formanek. Manfred Eicher’s production suits the coolness of Turner’s conception, and captures much of the passion of its expression, but also undoubtedly dilutes the physical impact of a live performance. That’s all to the good with, for example, the Billy Hart albums, but in this case, something is lost. All told, it’s a small quibble.
Lathe of Heaven, incidentally, takes its title from a mistranslation of writing by 4th century BC Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu. Ursula K. Le Guin used this line as an epigraph in her novel, also titled Lathe of Heaven:
“To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven.”
This was the second of three back-to-back reviews of new ECM recordings featuring tenor saxophonist Mark Turner. The others considered Stafano Bollani’s Joy in Spite of Everything, on which Turner plays in a quintet alongside guitarist Bill Frisell, and One Is The Other, the latest album from the former Ethan Iverson/Mark Turner Quartet, now working under Billy Hart’s leadership.
Mark Turner tenor saxophone; Avishai Cohen trumpet; Joe Martin double bass; Marcus Gilmore drums.
Buy Lathe of Heaven direct from ECM.