Mark Turner is a dynamic and lucid jazz tenor saxophonist who's been part of Billy Hart's Quartet for a decade. He's also been a member of Fly, the collaborative trio with the skilled bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard. But Turner, who will be at Dazzle on Saturday, September 27, also considers himself a fairly avid science fiction reader, with Ursula K. Le Guin being one of his favorite authors, and Turner's brand new ECM album, Lathe of Heaven, borrows its name from her 1971 novel.
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The 48-year-old Turner remembers as a kid being impressed by both the PBS adaptation of The Lathe of Heaven and later reading the novel, which is essentially about a man whose dreams alter reality.
"Basically it's about the changing nature of reality," Turner says of the book. "That's it not as solid as we think it is, and that at any point things that could be changing yesterday everyone could have purple and we wouldn't know because some guy dreamed it up and we had no idea what's really go on. It's just that reality is stranger than fiction.
"Even if you have in dreams in your own life, you want to do something to make it real. We are the universe. We make it real every time, every day. Just that. It's pliable. Don't get stuck in your rut, and make things happen. The world is magical and interesting and there's no reason to ever be bored. So that's basically the vibe."
Turner, who practices Buddhism, says the idea of impermanent nature of reality and that it's not as solid as we think it a Buddhist notion, but he adds that the novel itself happens to deal with similar issues. Part of one of the tenants of Buddhism, he says, is that all things are impermanent, and that notion carries over to way he approaches music.
"In terms of writing music and playing music I would say that it's important to remain concentrated to try in the moment and not be worried about the future or the past, not worry about discursive thought when you're trying to improvise," he says. "It's too slow. It's like trying to be in a fight when you're thinking about it or tying your shows and you think about it. Or not worrying about, for example, if you're improvising getting overly worried about things changing or the fact that maybe you played something you didn't like or writing something and being overly concerned about a past mistake, or a past triumph and getting over it or getting attached to it so much that you can't move forward."
And moving forward is something Turner has been doing professionally for the last two decades and with his earlier five albums as a leader, starting with Yam Yam, his 1995 debut on Criss Cross. While he's has kept active performing with Hart's group and with Fly, Lathe of Heaven is Turner's first album as a leader since 2001's Dharma Days.
"I'm not so into being a leader for leader's sake," he says. "You know, being in the limelight, being in the front and all that. I'm only a leader for basically practical and musical reasons because there are things you get to do as a leader that you wouldn't otherwise get to do, for example, as a sideman. So, part of it is just that I wasn't ready to deal with all of it when I was younger."
Around the time of Dharma Days, Turner and his wife had children, and he was "trying to be a viable, responsible, skillful parent the best I could and trying to be a viable, responsible, skillful saxophone player was pretty much all that I could handle. Trying to be a leader too would basically make me at the very least mediocre of all three. I wanted to try to do at least two things well.
"If I had a huge desire to be leader and I really just wanted to be leading bands no matter what I might have done it anyway but I basically waited until the time was right. My time freed up enough so that would be able to handle being a leader and fulfill my other responsibilities because being a leader you have to do a bunch of other things that have nothing to do with music. You probably spend half your time or more dealing with promoters and all kinds of other stuff. As a side man you basically just deal with music."
Joining Turner on Lathe of Heaven are trumpeter Avishai Cohen, bassist Joe Martin, who Turner has played with in various groups over the last 15 years, and drummer Marcus Gilmore, who Turner says all very detailed players and that they all pay great attention to specifics about the music whatever situation they're in, which is something that's true for most musicians that he like playing with and that he's associated with.
"What these three in particular do in a way that I thought would be appropriate for these songs that I wrote," he says. "They're all complimentary to each other."
That's more than evident both in the live setting and on the stunning and captivating Lathe of Heaven, which features songs inspired by Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson, who Turner plays with in Hart's quartet, Stevie Wonder and another science fiction author, Peter F. Hamilton, who's Night's Dawn Trilogy and short-story collection A Second Chance at Eden prompted the title of Turner's song "The Edenist."
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