Mark Turner is one of the most admired saxophonists of his generation, renowned for his exploratory intellect and intimate expressivity on the full range of the tenor horn. Lathe of Heaven is his sixth album as a leader, but the first under his own name since 2001. It’s also his debut as a leader for ECM, following two fine albums for the label in the cooperative trio Fly with Larry Grenadier and Jeff Ballard, plus appearances on key ECM recordings by Billy Hart and Enrico Rava. Turner leads a quartet of kindred spirits here, often entwining with rising star trumpeter Avishai Cohen as they play long, introspective lines of hypnotic grace; and with the lithe rhythm section of bassist Joe Martin and drummer Marcus Gilmore, there is subtle volatility in the air.
Lathe Of Heaven placed on numerous Top Ten lists at the end of 2014. Here are some of the highlights:
• The Baltimore City Paper said, “The jazz story of 2014 was the emergence of long-underrated saxophonist Mark Turner. After brilliant contributions to the Billy Hart Quartet, the cooperative trio Fly, and many others, Turner released his first solo album in 13 years in 2014. Lathe of Heaven recalls a younger Wayne Shorter in the inventiveness of its composition and high feeling of its playing. Turner also made contributions to splendid 2014 albums by Hart, Jochen Rueckert, and Stefano Bollani.”
• In the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Sam Lemos of the band Sportello said, “Turner has such a unique sound and style, both compositionally and in his improvisations, and the musicians he assembled for this record couldn’t be better. It is an album of rare beauty, his first as a bandleader since 2001’s Dharma Days, and well worth the wait.”
• In the San Jose Mercury News, Richard Scheinin wrote, “All shadowy beauty, this is the influential saxophonist’s first album in more than a decade. His quartet—with trumpeter Avishai Cohen, bassist Joe Martin and drummer Marcus Gilmore—is remarkable. With its long, graceful, intertwining breaths and gestures, it seems to build elaborate structures in the sky; music of imagination.”
• In the New York Times, both Nate Chinen and Ben Ratliff put Lathe of Heaven on their year-end lists; Chinen wrote, “On his first proper album as a leader in 13 years, the tenor saxophonist Mark Turner favors slithery interplay with the trumpeter Avishai Cohen, and finds new purpose in post-bop protocols. There’s dry intrigue in his compositions, and supple exactitude in his rhythm team,” while Ratliff wrote, “The tenor saxophonist Mark Turner doesn’t rush anything. He’s in his late 40s now, with a new and piano-less group, and this is his best album, the strongest example of his articulate writing and his calm improvisational power.”
• In the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Calvin Wilson wrote, “Was it worth the wait? Absolutely. With Avishai Cohen on trumpet, Joe Martin on bass and Marcus Gilmore on drums, Turner came up with an album that took the piano-less quartet to fresh and fascinating places.”
• In the Boston Globe, Jon Garelick wrote, “Turner matched the soaring lyricism and beguiling unpredictability of his tenor saxophone lines with an equally alluring collection of original pieces that pushed the tension between composition and improvisation.”
• Lathe of Heaven placed at #5 in the NPR Jazz Critics’ Poll; Francis Davis wrote, “Saxophonist Mark Turner’s quartet…is so airy that any chording instrument would have only gotten in the way. Turner first attracted attention in the late ’90s for reconciling Coltrane’s harmonic involvement and lengthy improvised lines with a coolness more typified by Warne Marsh or Lee Konitz; Turner’s sound remains unmistakable. And if you still haven’t heard the gifted trumpeter Avishai Cohen, this is as good a place as any to start.”
Given that he’s participated on no fewer than six recordings on ECM over the past six years—two this year alone, with drummer Billy Hart’s sophomore effort for the label, One is the Other (2014), and pianist Stefano Bollani’s career-defining Joy in Spite of Everything (2014)—it’s no surprise to find Mark Turner finally getting his own date on the venerable German label. That Lathe of Heaven is the saxophonist’s first recording under his own name alone since 2001’s Dharma Days (Warner Bros., 2001) only speaks to an approach to recording that is as painstakingly well thought-out as Turner’s approach to music-making; he may take his time with everything he does, but the results are always worth the wait.
I read Ursula Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven in high school. At the start, the plot was easy to comprehend; a man goes to a psychiatrist because he’s accidentally affecting reality with his dreams. But when therapy sessions of lucid dreaming ensue, the novel gets pretty far out there. By the end, I had no idea which way was up and which was down. None of the conflicts and their supposed resolutions felt concrete and I had a hard time detecting whether I had read something great or not. But that’s mystery for you, the allure of the unexplained. Mark Turner gets it. “I like when things are defined by negative space,” says the saxophonist in the press release for his ECM debut as band leader Lathe of Heaven. “It creates mystery when things are left unsaid, what’s left unsaid has its own meaning. This hopefully creates music with enough tension so that you’re riveted by anticipation.”
As a sort of new paragon of saxophone technique, and as a tenor saxophonist who had internalized the 1960s tradition of Coltrane, Joe Henderson and Wayne Shorter only to escape into his own calm and original language, Mark Turner was a hero to young musicians around the turn of the century. He’s led his own bands in clubs over the last decade, and recorded as a sideman with plenty of others: Billy Hart, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Enrico Rava. But “Lathe of Heaven” is his first album in 13 years, since “Dharma Days,” in 2001.
It’s his best record. It has a group sound, the force of embodied unity. It does something that jazz records used to do more: you might hear it, feel there’s really nothing to add, and decide not to listen to records—including this one—for, say, a week.