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Mark Turner shows other sides of himself in an unvarnished conversation with JazzTimes

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JazzTimes - A.D. AMOROSI writes….When you hear tenor saxophonist Mark Turner’s name in conversation, it seems to be frequently linked to the notions of mindfulness, precision, and fastidiousness. “That is a good thing … I think,” Turner says from Switzerland, in between a day’s Zoom lessons with students and a night’s gig with his ensemble.

It also makes him contemporary creative music’s sharp dressed man, buttoned up but free, with a feel for the intergalactic in his composition and the spacy (albeit with a serrated edge) in his playing. Listen to his newest ECM album, Return from the Stars: He’s creating exploratory jazz with a vision that’s both open-ended and clear-cut.

So what does Turner do that isn’t so sharp and clean?

“My social interactions,” the saxophonist says with a laugh. “I’m not too together on that, staying connected. I’m definitely the opposite of meticulous on that count. Very messy.”

Luckily, his interactions with intelligent and equally diligent fellow improvisers have remained clear since at least his time as a sideman to Leon Parker (ref: 1994’s Above & Below).

“I think attention to detail is important,” he continues. “Most of the artistic masters that I look to, in jazz and the European music continuum—even the visual art world and literature—pay great attention to every point, every component. That focus allows them to get deeper into their art form.”

Before he can get into further details of his detailing, though, Turner says a most unusual thing. “I’m not naturally talented. I have to study and pay extra attention to the craft in order to be able to credibly and inventively play music.”

He goes on to state that he’s been around people with “natural” talent, be it for math or music, and that his definition of engagement is not theirs. “They might work at it, whatever it is, a lot, but they can also do it at a credible level without working at it, and have been able to do so from a young age. That was not me. I have to be on it all the time.”

“I just don’t want to go that way, that blue way. I have to learn how to bring it in in a different way.”

Turner first got “on it” as a Southern California youth with music-loving parents who played their son a wealth of gospel, R&B, and jazz records. He spent his adolescence in marching bands (“that’s a very California kid thing”) before heading off to the East Coast and Boston’s Berklee College of Music. “Thinking in a hierarchical way, I’m sure I was mediocre at Berklee,” he says. “I was ordinary … Maybe I still am.”

Here your humble author must protest. If Mark Turner were ordinary, you wouldn’t be reading this story. Precise and protean, he’s a modern-day Sonny Rollins without the muskiness and overt muscularity. When pushed on this, he makes a reluctant acknowledgement: “I started to feel as if there was something about me and my saxophone playing that was different than other players in 1992 [the year he turned 27], something recognizable on its own.”

What separated him then, he felt, was the way that his playing united seemingly contrary approaches. “Something fiery and cool, the best examples being Warne Marsh and John Coltrane. Two players working at the opposite poles at one time. Using meticulous lines with great ornamentation in a modern jazz context. Celebrating a blue flame, as opposed to a red flame. Playing the long game instead of the short game in my sound. Obviously too I was working out my higher register more, with the same tone quality or control in the altissimo [register] as you would [have] with the mid-to-low portion of the horn, akin to what classical saxophonists did.”        Robert Lewis/Courtesy of ECM Records)