I was lucky enough to catch Stanley Turrentine in Seattle last month at one of his last performance gigs. He played the week of August 17th at the Jazz Alley, a great club off 5th Street and home to many star players. The band began with a short number to introduce themselves-Larry Fuller on piano, Dave Streicher on guitar, Paul Thompson on bass, and Lenny Robinson on drums-before the sax legend joined them onstage.
What makes Turrentine a legend? Perhaps it's his mastery of the subtone-the sort of note that is half-air, half-sound. His playing has a refined touch, which is rare these days, yet he doesn't give the impression of holding back anything. Turrentine is a soft-spoken, curly-haired gentleman whose voice and tenor sound rarely rise above mezzo forte. When he plays, his cheeks dimple and a knot of wrinkles form on the bridge of his nose between his tight-shut eyes. But when he's not blowing his horn, Turrentine (age 66) has the smooth, unwrinkled brow of a man who is happy with his music and life's work.
"Touching" put the audience in a sentimental mood with its triplet-rich ballad feel. Turrentine's tone is pure and controlled, never schmaltzy-a fine line that smooth jazz players too often cross. The melody here was reminiscent of "Moonlighting," and the energy dipped a little in the middle. It seems the musicians on stage, mostly Seattle locals, were a little uneasy with the undemanding tempo. But Turrentine, whose father used to make him practice whole notes so he'd pay attention to the richness of each tone, was in no hurry. That isn't to say he was kicking back. Under the radar of the melody, he was sneaking in runs, passing tones, and entire scales. Although his tone is ramrod straight, Turrentine does a lot with dynamics.
A standard set in bossa-nova rhythm opened up solo opportunities for bass and piano. Larry Fuller, who also plays with Ray Brown in L.A., was in fine form. More successful was the funky rock number that followed, which finally got a rise out the audience.
"Don't Mess with Mr. T." moved in and out of a quick swing beat, even during the solos. "Mr. T.," a.k.a. Turrentine, had his hardest-hitting accents here, and the band handled the tricky rhythmic shifts with ease. Fuller may look straight-laced, but he plays with a wonderful blues-y sound, especially on this number. On his "Mr. T." solo, Fuller showed fistfuls of talent with well-timed accents and exciting tremolos. Unfortunately, Fuller's stage presence is so nonchalant that it verges on rude. Returning to the head, Turrentine made things noisy by honking, as if to say "Y'all know the notes by now; I don't need to play it for you nicely this time." Mr. T. laughed at himself, pretending to not be able to sound out the subtones, then cranked up the volume to end with a racket. He stretched out the breaks at the end to give the audience time to comment, "heh, heh, heh," and clap lightly with appreciation just before the band took flight in a high and wild coda. This obstreperous number earned Turrentine the wildest applause of the evening.
"You Can't Take That Away from Me," a Gershwin standard, came next. Turrentine tossed in a little "Ja-Da" for good measure. Pianist Fuller did a lot with the B section, turning the tune Latin for half a sec. Bassist Thompson followed with his own excellent improv. Judging by the audience response, Thompson should have been given more solo time in the set.
The last piece was a woolly blues tune that gave each player a chance at freer improv. Seattle is a tough crowd to play for, restrained and quiet for the most part, but by this time they'd been won over. Even Fuller was smiling under his beard. The band closed with a short little piece that was as unpretentious as Mr. T. himself.
This review is dedicated to Stanley Turrentine (1934-2000), who passed away on September 12th at the age of 66. He will be missed.