Jazz saxophonist Mark Turner is known for his intense, intellectual musical style, as well as his deeply thoughtful approach to life. Although he has been heralded by critics, some note that his music may be too rarefied for the commercial market; he produced several albums with Warner Bros, before losing his contract with that label at the end of 2001. Since that time, he has continued to play and to reassess his musical goals.
Turner was born on November 10, 1965, in Fairbom, Ohio, but moved to Orange County, California, with his family at the age of four. As a child, he was equally interested in music and art and initially planned to become an illustrator, although he began playing alto saxophone in high school, and took up tenor saxophone two years later. Turner’s parents were both music lovers and jazz fans, so he was exposed early to recordings of some of the finest jazz musicians. The first saxophone recordings he owned were by John Coltrane, Sonny Stitt, and Gene Ammons.
Turner studied design and illustration at Long Beach State University, but in 1987 transferred to the Berklee College of Music in Boston. In a biography on his agent’s website, Turner said, “Obviously the mediums are different, in that music happens in the moment and art doesn’t in the same way. But I see similarities in the creative processes.”
At Berklee, Turner studied with noted saxophonists, including Billy Pierce, Joe Viola, and George Garzone, and made connections with other musicians who would eventually play on his albums. They included guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, drummer Jorge Rossy, saxophonists Joshua Redman, Chris Cheek, Seamus Blake, and Antonio Hart, pianists Geoff Keezer and Anthony Won-sey, and bassist Dwayne Burno.
In a press release issued by his agent, Turner described this period: “We’d play all the time… That thing of playing and practicing, having a place to just play, and then go back and practice, then have another session, the balance of those two is a perfect circle. I was also around people who were doing things I couldn’t do, people that I wanted to learn from.”
In an interview in Jazz Weekly, Turner told Fred Jung that during this time, he particularly admired saxophonist John Coltrane because of Coltrane’s philosophy that musicians should focus not on ego but on “becoming a selfless musician and playing for more of a lofty purpose.” Turner told New York Times writer Ben Ratliff that in school, he was completely absorbed in Coltrane’s music, saying, “I was fairly methodical. I almost always wrote out Coltrane’s solos, and I’d have a lot of notes on the side.” He knew at the time that he would not end up copying Coltrane, that he would simply learn from him and move on to find his own sound. He also noted, “I noticed that if you looked at someone
Born on November 10, 1965, in Fairborn, OH; married Helena Hansen; two children. Education: Attended Long Beach State College and Berklee College of Music.
Early influences included John Coltrane and Warne Marsh; first album, Yam Yam, released on Criss Cross label, 1994; followed by Warner releases Mark Turner and In This World, 1998, Ballad Session, 2000, and Dharma Days, 2001; contract with Warner Bros, expired, December of 2001; also works as a sideman in other musicians’ recordings.
else who was into Trane, and if you could listen through that person’s ear and mind, it would be a slightly different version. That’s who you are—it’s how you hear.” After learning from Coltrane’s work, Turner focused his meticulous study on the work of Joe Henderson, Dexter Gordon, and Sonny Rollins.
In 1990 Turner moved to New York, where he met Warne Marsh, whose playing of the tenor saxophone emphasized long, linear, melodic improvisation, in contrast to the more aggressive sound of Turner’s earlier inspirations. In addition to Marsh, Turner discovered the music of Lester Young, whose style fell between these extremes. His first album, Yam Yam, was released in 1994; his self-titled second album, on the Warner Bros, label, included a mixture of musical genres, combining what Ron Wynn in Weekly Wire called “introspective unison exchanges with [saxophonist] Joshua Redman … to lush, passionate statements.” Wynn also noted that pianist Edward Simon, bassist Christopher Thomas, and drummer Brian Blade didn’t “simply sit back and accompany the leaders. Constantly adjusting, prodding, and changing tempos, they help prevent Turner from coasting or losing steam.” His third album, In This World, was also released by Warner Bros, in that same year. Turner told Jung, “I feel relatively good about it. I was happy with the way everyone performed on it.” He viewed the record as a continuation of what he had done on Mark Turner, calling it “a nice progression.”
In 2000 Turner released Ballad Session, a collection of pieces composed by other musicians. Although he planned to feature his own music on his next two albums, he told Jung, “I kind of wanted to [perform other people’s music] for the last time for a while and move on.” In the Philadelphia City Paper, Nate Chinen wrote that Turner’s 2001 album Dharma Days “both extends and deepens the tenor saxophone’s distinctive oeuvre,” and that Turner “improvises with the same alluringly elusive quality that distinguishes his compositions.”
In December of 2001, after four releases with Warner Bros., Turner’s contract with the company expired and was not renewed. New York Times writer Ben Ratliff noted that this was a shock, since Turner’s “music is intellectual and rigorously composed, defined by long, flowing, chromatically complex lines that keep their stamina and intensity as they stay dynamically even.” Ratliff also praised Turner’s use of the difficult higher notes of the tenor saxophone, noting that other musicians “can’t say a negative word about him” and that they admire the freshness of his music. However, Ratliff wrote, “In the end, Mr. Turner’s music may have been too rigorous for Warner Bros, and he isn’t the sort who might turn his music around to sell records.”
A representative of the company told Ratliff that Turner’s contract wasn’t renewed because his records didn’t sell enough to satisfy the company. “It’s fine,” Turner said to Ratliff. “I was considering trying to get out of [the contract] myself. Nothing against Warner, but I feel relieved and open and free.” By June of 2002, though, Turner still had not had any calls from other record labels. This was not surprising, Ratliff noted, since many labels had cut or scaled back their jazz departments and moved into other kinds of music. Even labels like Verve and Blue Note, formerly jazz specialists, had begun emphasizing other musical genres.
In addition to fronting a group, Turner enjoys being a sideman to other musicians and told Ratliff that he wanted to be part of a cooperative band that shared composing and publishing credits. This modesty and self-effacement, Ratliff posited, might be why had trouble finding a label, quoting saxophonist Donny Mc-Caslin: “His demeanor is reserved, and his playing reflects that. He has an introspective sound. Maybe people aren’t seeing what’s there.” Bassist Reid Anderson told Ratliff, “He uses harmonies that are the language of harmony; he hears the melody within those harmonies…. He’s dealing on that high level that perhaps only the initiated can appreciate.”
Turner lives in New Haven, Connecticut, with his wife Helena Hansen, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Yale University, and their two children. Turner, who is a Buddhist, told Jung that his introverted, introspective personality helped him to focus on his music, saying, “Silence and quiet time helps for that, at least for me, to center myself, just to figure out what my priorities are.” Of his goals, he remarked that he wanted to “become a stronger musician, composer, and all that. But even more than that, just to be a giving, selfless person. Having a better understanding of the meaning of living. That is my main goal.”
Yam Yam, Criss Cross, 1994.
Mark Turner, Warner Bros., 1997.
In This World, Warner Bros., 1998.
Ballad Session, Warner Bros., 2000.
Ballad Session (with bonus track), WEA, 2000.
Dharma Days, Warner Bros., 2001.
Guardian (London, England), May 29, 1999.
New York Times, June 16, 2002; July 2, 2002.
“A Fireside Chat with Mark Turner,” Jazz Weekly, http://www.jazzweekly.com/interviews/turner.htm (September 18, 2002).
“Dig the New Breed: Young Jazz Has a Lot to Offer,” Weekly Wire, http://weeklywire.com/ww/07-20-98/nash_music-records.html (September 19, 2002).
“Mark Turner Biography,” Hopper Management, http://www.hoppermanagement.com/bios/mark_turner_bio_e.htm (September 18, 2002).
“Mark Turner Quintet,” Philadelphia City Paper, http://www.citypaper.net/articles/051701/mus.picke.shtml (September 18, 2002).
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