Mark Turner Escapes the Shadow of John Coltrane

Last fall, Mark Turner, the most influential jazz tenor saxophonist since John Coltrane, nearly sliced off two of his fingers while cutting firewood at his home in Flatbush.
It seemed as if fate couldn’t have been crueler to Mr. Turner. He has long been celebrated by the jazz cognoscenti as a unique talent. But he doesn’t suffer from overexposure. The 42-year-old jazz musician hasn’t made a record under his own name since the splendid Dharma Days for Warner Brothers in 2001, after which the label summarily dropped him. Since then, Mr. Turner has worked as a sideman. He doesn’t have a manager or a publicist. He takes a certain perverse pride in his relative obscurity. It confirms his pessimism about the world. The world, however, refuses to leave Mr. Turner alone. Last year, ECM, the prestigious German record label, signed Fly, the cooperative ensemble in which he plays, with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard.


Then came the power-saw accident. He thought his career was over. A Buddhist, he took refuge in his faith.

“I felt I’d done what I wanted to do,” said Mr. Turner, a knifelike man with sharp cheekbones not unlike those of the comedian Chris Rock. “I felt like getting upset about it would be like feeling entitled.”

After undergoing surgery, his digits are healing much faster than anyone expected. He was able to resume performing in time for the release in March of Sky & Country, Fly’s splendid first album for ECM. He is even talking about becoming a bandleader again. “I’m feeling the need now,” he said, messaging his right forefinger, which he still has trouble bending. “There are certain things I want to document and certain things I want to do. I’ve never written for trumpet, for example.”

For most of the last half-century, Mr. Coltrane has dominated jazz, even though he died in 1967. Coltrane spent the late ’50s crafting mazelike songs that could only be negotiated by musicians of his caliber. In the ’60s, he added African and Indian elements to his work. Coltrane ended his career playing howling avant-garde music that some would say departed from jazz entirely. In short, he left his heirs a great deal to chew over.

But he also left a void. So-called free players mined Coltrane’s late period. Traditionalists immersed themselves in his earlier work. They all came up dry because Coltrane left so few stones unturned himself.

What jazz desperately needed was a tenor saxophonist who could extricate himself from this trap. Mr. Turner grew up in an affluent suburb of Los Angeles, the stepson of one of the first black executives to work at IBM and later Apple Computers. The only black child in his neighborhood, Mr. Turner didn’t always feel welcome by the parents of his playmates. 

When Mr. Turner went to Berklee College of Music in Boston to study saxophone in the late ’80s, he felt a different kind of racial tension. Many of his classmates were followers of Wynton Marsalis, leader of a traditionalist movement known as the “young lions.” Mr. Turner wasn’t sure he was black enough for them.

Mr. Turner spent long hours—sometimes 10 a day—in the practice room absorbing the hard-swinging complexity of Mr. Coltrane and Joe Henderson, another ’60s tenor player adored by younger musicians. Yet this didn’t set him apart from his peers. They were tilling the same soil.

His breakthrough came when he immersed himself in the work of Warne Marsh, a wonderfully loopy tenor player who was a disciple of the blind pianist-cum-guru Lennie Tristano. Mr. Tristano, who was briefly famous in the 1940s, and his followers are often described—unfairly—as cerebral and unswinging. They were also almost all white.

That didn’t bother Mr. Turner. “What intrigued Mark was that he felt he had discovered a whole alternative language,” said Mr. Turner’s wife, Helena Hansen, a psychiatrist-anthropologist. “These Italian and Jewish New Yorkers weren’t really part of the whole bebop scene. They ended up developing their own approach. Mark has always been interested in things that crop up in the corner, the sunflower that you find growing in the abandoned lot. He loves that.”

Mr. Turner combined Marsh’s whimsy with his lessons from Coltrane and Henderson and came up with a style of his own. It isn’t just his sound, which is so full of longing. Mr. Turner can burn it up onstage. There’s an emotional depth to his playing that is lacking in so many of his peers, who seem more interested in simply exciting the crowd with acrobatics.

He describes his music as “pastoral.” “It can mean lots of highs and lows and it can also mean a sort of cool burn,” Mr. Turner offered by way of description. “[The classical composer] Morton Feldman has that. Warne Marsh has that.”

And the jazz world wanted it. Warner Brothers signed him. He recorded four albums for the label. But the record business started to collapse; the major labels started cutting their jazz divisions. Mr. Turner’s albums weren’t exactly big sellers. He and Warner Brothers soon parted ways. “I wasn’t upset,” he said. “That was never where I actually belonged.”

Instead, Mr. Turner became a hired gun playing with more famous musicians, like the brilliant guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, and some who were not, like Mikkel Ploug, a Danish guitarist who is not well known in America, but should be.

This may have hurt him financially. But it didn’t diminish his presence. “If you go to adjudicate at one of these festivals or if you teach at a [jazz] camp, there are all these young people who have really been influenced by him,” said Donny McCaslin, an enormously respected tenor saxophonist who has known Mr. Turner since the two of them were in high school.

“I have met many saxophone players from all over the world who claim that, for them, he is the number one of all time,” said Mr. Ploug.

He still takes sideman gigs. You can hear him on Thursday, June 25, at Small’s, in a band led by Tom Guarna, a fine but little-known guitarist.

This is not the kind of job that will advance Mr. Turner’s career—though it may do something for Mr. Guarna’s. That’s fine with Mr. Turner. He’s been scolded for taking jobs like this before. That’s one of the reasons Mr. Turner doesn’t have a manager anymore.

“I’ve been told that, but I don’t pay attention, to be honest with you,” he said. “I’ve probably shot myself in the foot quite a bit. There’s probably a fair amount of people, according to managers, who I shouldn’t be playing with. But that’s not why I decided to play music.”


Mark Turner Escapes the Shadow of John Coltrane