Saxophonist Mark Turner Leads an Exploratory and Thought Provoking Journey in his Latest Release, Return from the Stars

The quartet features Jason Palmer,
Joe Martin, and Jonathan Pinson
Available March 25 via ECM Records
Mark Turner has been a frequent and significant presence on ECM recordings of the last dozen years, bringing his saxophone artistry and his musical commitment to recordings with Enrico Rava, the Billy Hart Quartet, the cooperative Fly trio (with Jeff Ballard and Larry Grenadier), Stefano Bollani and, most recently, Ethan Iverson, on the duo recording Temporary Kings. Albums under Turner’s leadership, however, have been rare, and Return from the Stars is the first ECM recording to feature his quartet since 2014’s Lathe of Heaven.

Turner’s writing for his group on Return from the Stars gives the players plenty of space in which to move, on an album both exhilarating and thoughtful in its arc of expression. Solos flow organically out of the arrangements and, beneath the dazzling interplay of Turner’s tenor and Jason Palmer’s trumpet, bassist Joe Martin and drummer Jonathan Pinson often roam freely. The absence of a chordal instrument keeps the conversational possibilities in the music wide open, as the compositions modulate between the meticulously structured and the loosely guided. Mark Turner puts a lot of faith in intuition and the shared artistic goals of an ensemble, and cherishes the narrative tension arising from the juxtaposition of freedom and responsibility:

My process in writing is that I write for the people playing,” he says. “I don’t like to say a lot to them about the compositions. I like to write a piece of music and know that the people I’ve chosen are going to play it, basically, the way they play. I’d rather they find themselves in the music. The tunes are written in such a way that each musician has a choice in terms of how they take care of what they’re supposed to be doing. There are parts written for the horns. Not so much is written for the rhythm section, except for a few ‘hits’ and maybe time changes in sections. I just give guidelines about how the section should feel and then I let bass and drums figure out how to do it. Whatever makes the rhythm section sound good, that’s what we do. Then, the horns will play on top of that. “

Bassist Joe Martin is the sole musician retained from the Lathe of Heaven line-up. He’s been playing with Turner in diverse contexts since 1995. And, as he outlined it to Music & Literature magazine: “I always feel, playing with Mark I have to play as well as possible and raise the bar. In the quartet, because there isn’t a piano or guitar player to fill a certain harmonic space for everybody, I’m more probably more conscious of my note choices. Just one single note choice changes everything, suggesting tonality, harmony.”

Turner met dynamic drummer Jonathan Pinson while playing with Israeli guitarist Gilad Hekselman’s group. Pinson’s CV begins at a high level: he dived into the music at the deep end, touring with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Greg Osby while still in his early twenties. His résumé also includes work with Kamasi Washington, Ambrose Akinmusire, Dave Liebman, and many others. Pinson makes his ECM debut with Return from the Stars, as does trumpeter Jason Palmer.

Palmer and Mark Turner first encountered each other as sidemen in bands a decade ago. Mark subsequently played in projects led by the trumpeter, also recording in some of his projects (Places, Rhyme and Reason, and The Concert). He singles out Palmer’s “willingness to go into zones unknown to him” among his outstanding qualities. The two of them share an encyclopedic knowledge of the music. The Boston Phoenix has said of Palmer that he “builds fire with his secure tone and the cool deliberation of his solos”. The same could be said of Turner, who, according to National Public Radio, “has an innovative sonic signature, a certain floating chromaticism, rhythmic mindfulness and lightness of tone, filled with subtleties.”

Return from the Stars takes its title from Stanisław Lem’s science fiction novel in which an astronaut returns from an exploratory space mission to find life on earth greatly changed, and his own values out of step with those of a conformist, risk-averse society. Turner’s sci-fi enthusiasms are well known, and some observers have perceived a kind of idiomatic ‘time traveling’ quality in his work: The Guardian described his ECM quartet album Lathe of Heaven (named after an Ursula K. Le Guin story) as “sounding like Birth of the Cool floated over a 21st-century rhythmic concept.” A deep study of a range of jazz masters has informed his style, his expressivity on the full range of the tenor saxophone, and the scope of his writing, which brings the music forward while being acutely aware of its history.

Return from the Stars was recorded at New York’s Sear Sound Studio and mixed at Studios La Buissonne, in Southern France. The album was produced by Manfred Eicher.

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