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.
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.