BY BENSON IDONIJE
IT would seem as though the saxophone stopped evolving and reaching out to new styles and dimensions with the death of John Coltrane in 1967. But during the restlessly dynamic days of the instrument, when musicians often rose up to outdo one another, Stanley Turrentine was mentioned along with Hank Mobley, Dexter Gordon, Archie Shepp, Johnny Griffin, Sonny Stitt, Sonny Rolllins, Harold Land — in that bracket — as one of the key players.
Turrentine was particularly remarkable because as a Blue Note favourite, he endorsed numerous sessions with a saxophone sound that was big, huge and powerful in tonal conception and intensity. Besides, while he was highly regarded in soul-jazz circles, he was one of the finest tenor saxophonists in any style in modern times, excelling at up-tempo compositions, jam sessions and interpreting standards, especially ballads, which were totally soaked in the blues.
Stanley Turrentine’s rich, booming tone with the swing influence could be said to be rooted in the Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster idiom in traditional terms. And, spicing it up with Rollins and Gene Ammons at the modern level, his sound became rounded and deeply involved.
Turrentine perhaps became famous for working with the organist, Jimmy Smith on sessions that Blue Note held in high esteem for their quality in terms of the blues appeal. Sessions such as Midnight Special, Back at the chicken shack, Prayer Meeting recorded during his association with Jimmy Smith could not have been successful without his tenor saxophone solos, whose blues influence perfectly matched the chemistry of Jimmy Smith’s organs sound as he wailed and stretched out from chorus to chorus.
However, Turrentine did a lot of recordings on his own which many devotees have failed to take notice of because they regarded him essentially as a soloist and sideman who could not thrive without the association with Jimmy Smith. And one of Turrentine’s great recording sessions, on his own, for Blue Note, is Look Out!
Recorded in the 60s, the rhythm section is one that was a permanent part of Lou Donaldson’s group. This explains the reason for the acute rapport that exists among the individual players —Harace Parlan, piano; George Tucker, bass; Al Harewood drums, Stanley Turrentine himself, tenor saxophone — a quartet setting of strong individuals.
Turrentine had known pianist Horace Parlan since high school although they attended different ones in Pittsburgh. In the ’50s, they did some playing together before Horace left for New York and earned subsequent recognition as a member of the Charles Mingus Jazz Workshop. The story of how Horace took up the piano as a therapeutic device, after a childhood bout with polio, which had left his right hand paralysed, is well known to jazz critics and devotees. Amazing as his accomplishments are in the light of this, the final judgement of musical achievement is in how it sounds.
Horace needs no ‘if’ or ‘although’ to prop up his playing. His blues-rooted style is also economical with a touch and sense of time that ensures continuos swinging.
Bassist George Tucker was one of the rapidly rising young players of the instrument. Strength and sensitivity are a combination that make any rhythm player stand out. George had both qualities.
Drummer Al Harewood was a Brooklyn boy, who had been heard with Jay Jay Johnson and Kai Winding, two frontline trombonists of that period. He was also heard with saxophonist Gigi Gryce. You always are in his presence, but he never intrudes. Like Tucker, he concentrates on swinging and often accomplishes his purpose.
Look out! is a blues by Turrentine, a 12-bar blues structure that gets into the groove from the very beginning and never looks to either side. Stanley Turrentine and Parlan are the beneficiaries of solo opportunities here.
Journey into melody written by British composer, Robert Farnon is an extremely pretty ballad which was quite new at the time. Turrentine became familiar with it as a result of its use as theme song for a radio show called Tonight at 8 on station WWSW in Pittsburgh.
Return Engagement composed by pianist Horace is an up-tempo, but its attractive chord changes are given their full due by Stanley Turrentine. The swing is light but with a firm underpinning.
Little Sheri is dedicated to Turrentine’s daughter of the same name. Written by Turrentine in a minor mood, it finds him sounding funky with an underlying tenderness. Parlan explores the many possibilities of this composition on piano. He examines the tender side with his chordal technique.
Trumpeter Clifford Brown is remembered in Tiny Capers. It was the first time this composition by the late trumpeter was being recorded by another musician. It has a joyous quality, which has been very well captured by Stanley Turrentine on tenor saxophone.
Minor chant, another minor key original by Turrentine rounds out the set. Turrentine also recorded this tune with organist Jimmy Smith for Blue Note, but the interpretations are entirely different. While his treatment of the song with Smith emphasis a blues groove, with the organ dictating the mood and texture of the music, on his own, in a different quartet setting with piano, the story is different. Here, the straight-ahead rhythm section is swinging as much as at the beginning of the set, and bassist Tucker has a plucked solo for good measure.
Stanley Turrentine began his instruction on the instrument at the age of 13 with his father as the teacher. After high school in 1951, he got his first professional job with the blues band of Lowell Fulson. Ray Charles was the featured pianist and vocalist.
On leaving Fulson, Turrentine returned to Pittsburgh and studied for two years with Carl Arter. In 1953, he moved to Cleveland with his brother Tommy and both worked with Tadd Dameron. The following year, Turrentine replaced John Coltrane in Earl Bostic’s band. Tommy joined six weeks later.
Also with the band at different times during this period, were the trumpeter Blue Mitchell, George Turker and G.T Hogan. 1956 found him back in Pittsburgh for a short time; and Bangor, Maine for a summer resort gig by December. He also became a member of the Army Band. After being discharged two years later, Turrentine again returned to Pittsburgh in 1959, joined the drummer, Max Roach and remained with him combo until after an engagement at New York’s Jazz Gallery in May of 1960.
Turentine’s original influences were Don Byas and Ben Webster, two tenor men with a heavy sound. Among the younger giants of that period, he preferred Sonny Rollins who is still blowing the horn at age 79.
Reports from percussionist Lekan Babalola who saw the great saxophonist at a concert recently say that Rollins took a solo for 30 minutes at a strech, looking downwards as he blew, and running fiercely from one chorus to the other.
However, while Turrentine’s playing was modern in line with prevailing trends, the overall robust sound was an older one. The result was an effective fusion of several elements resulting in a full, graceful tenor style that is masculine but not harsh, possessing a warmth that does not consume itself but diffuses evenly throughout all his work.
Turrentine’s association with Shirley Scott, his wife who was a fine organist was both professional and personal, as they played together. They frequently recorded, with the featured leader’s name often depending on the session’s label affiliation. When they divorced and split musically in the early ‘70s, Turrentine became a cross-over star.
Although the jazz aspect of his cross-over music was proportionately lower, Turrentine’s playing, like that of Miles Davis, remained consistently superb. He returned to straight-ahead and soul jazz in the ‘80s, cutting more albums for Fantasy and Elektra, then returning to Blue Note.
The news of Turrentine’s death reached me in CapeTown, South Africa in 2004 when it was announced at the North sea Jazz festival.