For a while I've been inspired by Marks sense of harmony, range, and control of the horn. But what stands out just as much as all of those qualities is his humility and sense of self control. Upon meeting him, you will find him to be a very cool, quiet person, almost in a meditative state. If you get a chance to sit down and talk to him, you'll find he has lots of information and is just seriously cool. I have a lot of respect for this guy. Nuff said... Here's a recent Q & A between the maestro and I.
Jaleel: I know you were born in California. Can you talk about what it was like growing up in California, how you came to play the saxophone, and who some of your early influences were? Also, how old you were when you started to get serious and realized this is something you wanted to do as a career? Was Berklee your first choice?
Mark: Actually I was born in Ohio, Wright Patterson Air Force Base. My father was a Captain in the air force...his job was navigator in B52 bombers. We later moved with my stepfather(bio father died in plane crash) to L.A. (where I grew up) when I was four. I started playing the clarinet in school band in 4th grade(age 9). There was also a citywide marching band in which I was also involved. I played clarinet until 9th grade when Jazz (big) band was an option so I switched to alto and later tenor (11th/12th grade).
Some early influences were my saxophone teacher Bill McNairn who was strongly inlfuenced by Lester Young, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn. Also My parents had some Sonny Stitt/Gene Ammons records, My Favorite Things, Stardust(John Coltrane) Sonny Rollins(The Bridge), Sonny Side Up(Dizzy Gillespie), some Brecker Bros. Also my parents listened to music a quite a bit - partiularly lots of R&B(Stevie Wonder,Al Green, The Spinners, Earth Wind and Fire, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding etc). Regarding getting serious, not sure how to answer that as I'm still working on that part.
That said, serious meaning consistant daily practice/ involvment in music...started to take shape first or second year of college then by the third I was "serious" about music. Berklee was my first and only choice as I didn't really know about any other music schools on the east coast. Incidentally, by the way I got to Berklee that was my third year of college. Notion of Music as a career? That was gradual and was never really sure. Just took it a day, month, year at a time while it became a more consistent part of my life.
Jaleel: How was your experience at Berklee College of Music? Who did you study with and what were some of the things you focused on when you were shedding at this time? Also, who else was studying at Berklee at this time?
Mark: My time at Berklee was generally good. When I came I didn't know anything so there was nothing to lose(musically) and everything to gain. I learned from the other students as much as from the teachers. At that time there was Josh Redman(across the Charles river), Seamus Blake, Chris Cheek, Chris Speed(NEC), Antonio Hart(Tony back then), Donny McCaslin, Jordi Rossy, Danilo Perez, Roy Hargrove, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Scott Amendola, Scott Kinsey, Laila Hathaway, Delfeayo Marsalis, Jim Blake, Skooli Svereson, Dan Rieser, Jeff Parker, as well others. Teachers were George Garzone, Joe Viola, Billy Pierce. At that time I was mainly trying to learn the vocabulary(transcribing) and play the saxophone reasonably well(technique/time). Basically learning how to play. I wasn't as interested in originality as in fundamentals. How could I approach making this music mine if I don't really know what it is and or cannot speak its language? I'm still learning it as the process is gradual but at that time it was more fundamental than the present for the most part.
Jaleel: One of the first things I noticed when I first heard you was your control over the horn, your range, and your sense of harmony. What are some things that you practiced regularly? Are these things you are pretty much consistent with today?
Mark: Much of that (harmonic sensibility, horn range) were things that came after Berklee. Although foundation started there. After transcribing a lot I had learned from that process things other than vocabulary such as voice leading/harmony, note groupings, ornamentation, pacing, phrasing, swing/time, sound. Transcribing helped me to learn how to assimilate/integrate information in my own way. So I tried to find ways to combine/continue these things without transcribing. For example play a two five with voice leading( two to six voices all smooth voice leading), see all common tones including all alterations/change of chord color, change cadence with final chord the same, keep cadence change final chord, use note grouping of some type, triads, intervals, use ornamentation etc. Range came out of necessity. There were things I wanted to play that required it. So these are all things that I still work on. Maybe content changes but the format is similar.
Jaleel: Another thing I've noticed about you is that you are a very centered, focused, and humble. On the gigs I've done with you, it sometimes seems like you are meditating before you play. Sometimes doing yoga too. How has this helped you today and do you think it has had an influence on your playing?
Mark: I just try to keep things in perspective and maintain mindfulness on the task at hand. Perspective(what is really important in the relative and absolute, what is one's role/intention in a given situation) helps keep the ego( belief/clinging to an inherently existent I/self. Which includes all things associated with self such as... my body, my mind, my hopes, my fears, my desires, my aversions, my friends, my enemies, my material possessions, me, me, me and on and on etc) in check. Besides, ego is the killer of imagination...drags you down. Have no time for it. Mindfulness/Meditation help to keep the mind clear, focused, pliable. Yoga and running help to keep body/mind reasonably healthy. I'm a slow learner so I need time. Don't want this body to fail too soon.
Jaleel: As both a great saxophonist and composer, who would you say are your biggest influences in music and why?
Mark: Although this not a musical influence I would say at this point my grandfather Lewis Jackson is my greatest influence. Born to a working class family, died an aeronautical engineer, educator(college level), multimillionaire. If you met him you would never know it. He didn't talk about himself, what he lacked, or what others had. He just did. Keep in mind that he did this during the height of mind twentieth century segregation, before civil rights laws passed in the sixties. He and my grandmother lived in the same modest home until his death and left almost all of their money to education, the arts, and other charities. He was curious, imaginative, practical, intelligent, action oriented, and generous up to the end of his life. He died as he lived.
John Coltrane. More or less the same reasons as my grandfather but of course applied to music, craft, and culture. I would like to add adventure combined with taste and elegance. power/strength with tenderness and lyricism, blues/folklore with complex harmony/melody. Maintains center no matter what. Sound
Joe Henderson. Master of fast tempos, time, and pacing. Always in the rhythm section, over it on command. In other words he wields/galvanizes the rhythm section...does not simply play his language over it. One of the fathers of quickly moving form(in composition) which we now take for granted. Master of playing different "styles" /bands and giving each what it needs while maintaining his musical integrity/language. Always makes everyone else sound good. Blues/folklore. Maintains slick, cool, swagger no matter what. Sound
Warne Marsh. Master of invention. Rarely repeats himself. Willing to fall/stumble(musically) to find a new melody. Improvises at all costs. Relies primarily on content, placement, anticipation rather than volume/ dynamic range and inflection. Brings an inward contained/concentrated energy rather then an outward spread. Maintains cool no matter what. Sound.
Wayne Shorter. Prolific, varied, composer. Conjurer. Wide imagination. Covers full range of emotion. Sound.
Thelonius Monk. In terms of composition and playing. Great attention to detail. Says a great deal with only what is necessary. Covers full range of emotion. Fully aware. Conjurer. Blues/folklore. Chords. Sound. Use of space.
Lester Young. Melody. Use of space, pacing. Says a lot with little in a short time. Intelligent, witty improviser. Blues/folklore.Sound.
Miles Davis. The power of one note.
Duke Ellington. Prolific composer. Able take a format and write on it inexhaustibly. Chords.
Morton Feldman, Arnold Shoenberg, Bach, Beethoven. Harmony, Form, Chords, Space.
Issac Asimov, Ursula K. LeGuin. Imagination. Ability to created a world/paradigm that lives on it's own terms.
John Lennon/Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder. Great song writers.
All musical colleagues.I could go on and on but need to stop somewhere.
Jaleel: Lately, I'm realizing a lot of the masters have moved out of NYC. And I've been reading some great books that talk about how EVERYONE used to live in NY and how there was a little more networking going on amongst the older and younger musicians back in the day. I'm also seeing a lot of great musicians move out of the city and even the country to pursue their careers. But it's something I'm kind of afraid to do. Do you feel a connection to NYC musically? How important is it for you to be in New York?
Mark: I do feel a connection to NYC musically although I don't feel a necessity to stay here. I did live in New Haven for nine years. There is no other energy like it anywhere else in the jazzworld. It is and has been important to get a taste of it. I would not be what I am (musically) if I had not lived here at some point...at the very least to experience the culture as I believe it is still here(NYC).
Jaleel: You were one of many great jazz artist that were signed to a major label and experienced the collapse of those labels. I still remember running into you at the Vanguard and you telling me that Warner Bros. Jazz was basically no more. How was it to experience something like that first hand and how do you feel about the direction the music scene is going as far as recording goes?
Mark: On many levels it was good experience. If put back in same time period I would do it again but with a different head. Namely I did not realize how much power I/we musicians have. The people I knew at Warner Bros. loved music and worked really hard to keep it going/living. Regarding collapse, everything arises, abides, and falls/ born, lives and dies. So what else is knew? Something is being born/created in terms of recording. More creative freedom. Home made recording. Mobilization from musicians/ community.
Jaleel: What do you work on now when you practice? Do you still transcribe?
Mark: I practice sound mostly. Time in various ways. Vocabulary, technique, Voice leading, Ear training, Mind exercise. I don't transcribe much...little bits here and there from any type of music
Mark Turner plays:
49,000 Selmer Balanced Action Tenor Saxophone
w/ and early Babbit Otto Link #7 mouthpiece & 4 1/2 - 5 Robertos Woodwinds reeds
Yamaha 62 Soprano (which I would like to change to a Conn)
w/ a Bill Street mouthpiece (super great) w/ 4 1/2 - 5 Robertos Woodwind Reeds