"I’ve always sought out the elders," says the 53-year old trombonist, "and always knew you learn how to play by playing with people you admire." Starting with an early Bay Area apprenticeship with Rahsaan Roland Kirk and studies in the groups of Art Blakey, Dizzy Gillespie, Woody Shaw and McCoy Tyner, Turre has been true to his word reaching stylistic maturity by learning from some of the best teachers jazz has to offer.
But perhaps no master-student relationship has been as important to him as that of his longstanding friendship with the late, great bop trombonist J. J. Johnson. Johnson the man Gunter Schuller said "proved convincingly that anything Dizzy Gillespie could do on the trumpet could be matched on trombone" was the founder of the modern jazz language for his instrument. An intelligent, hungry player who was there at the creation of Forties bop, Fifties modal jazz and even Sixties soul, Johnson was the influence on post-WWII trombonists.
Turre honors Johnson on latest Telarc disc One 4 J. On it, he brings together five of the current music’s great players on that most difficult of brass instruments to run through an inspired program of Johnson classics. It’s a recording that surprises with a subtle swing and a varied tonal arsenal that would make Ravel prick up his ears.
Jazz Review caught up with Turre for a few words.
JazzReview: From playing along to J. J. Johnson records in high school to organizing this tribute disc of his music seems to take you full circle. Tell us about your first discovery of his music.
Steve Turre: I grew up in the Bay Area and started playing the trombone in my 4th Grade school band. It was a good system. By middle school, we were playing all the New Orleans music "Muskrat Ramble" and "When the Saints Go Marching In" and tunes like that. When I first heard J. J. in high school, it blew my mind. I didn’t realize the trombone could sound like that. Naturally, when I’d gotten to high school I had heard many modern players. But none like him.
Of course, he’s the father. He did for the trombone what Charlie Parker did for the saxophone, creating a new vocabulary for the instrument. Nobody had a sound like J. J: it was real, it was orchestral. Most importantly for me is that he didn’t eat the mic. (Referring to the tendency for many studio trombonists to put microphone right into the bell of the horn). Like the great orchestra players Christian Lindberg comes to mind he didn’t need amplification to fill a hall. He had that kind of power and technique. You could feel his sound. Like Miles, he would play one note and you could feel it and know it was J. J because of his life force and energy.
JazzReview: When did you first hear him play in person?
Steve Turre: That was my freshman year in college at San Jose State. He was conducting a master class there and playing with some of the students. But I didn’t introduce myself. I wasn’t ready yet. Then I saw him live a couple years later and then we became friends over the years.
J. J. was a great teacher. He would teach more by example, saying more in one sentence than most teacher’s say in a lifetime. There would be so much meaning in that one sentence.
JazzReview: One of the special things about this recording is that it showcases not just J. J. Johnson the trombone player, but J. J. the composer as well. What criteria did you use for selecting?
Steve Turre: When I set out to do this, I wanted to mix it up and do my own personal tribute. So I did a lot of research on his music, taking the opportunity to fill in my collection of J. J.’s recordings. I listened to everything the early recordings, the stuff with Miles, the trombone duos with Kai Winding -- and tried to find compositions that would give a well-rounded presentation of J. J. as both trombonist and composer. In his compositions, he got all the colors of the trombone in there.
I also wanted to cover a wide span of history like J. J. himself did -- but also wanted to make sure that some of my favorite tunes were presented in a way that could pay homage and remain faithful to tradition, yet put our own stamp on it. I didn’t want to take things to an avant garde level. I obviously have nothing against that. It’s just that that’s not what J. J. was about.
I like the way 'El Camino Real' came out on the disc. Very majestic like the Master himself. I think he would have been pleased with that one. "Minor Blues" I like too. It has a lot of what that original Impulse recording had, what moved me so much about that original recording. And, of course, Slide’s beautiful arrangement of "Lament" is just perfect.
JazzReview: How about the selection of players? There are five trombonists playing on the disc you, Robin Eubanks, Joe Alessi, Steve Davis, Andre Hayward and Douglas Purviance and Slide Hampton’s presence in spirit.
Steve Turre: As much as possible, I wanted to gather players that had worked with J. J. and knew him. Robin and I go way back we did the Dedication recording together and had played in McCoy’s band together and with Slide.
At the same time, I looked for trombone players who had a real sound, people who fill a concert hall like he could. I picked guys that were an extension to his school of playing.
During rehearsals and the recording, everybody was there for J. J. because we all loved him. And, second, we were there for the love of the instrument, the trombone. Third, we were there because we all love each other. It wasn’t about competition in the sense that anyone was trying to one-up the others. Even though there were five of us all playing the same instrument, this wasn’t a "Gunfight at the OK Corral." Music is not about competition. It’s about expression. Sport is about competition and music isn’t a sport.
So there was that feeling of good camaraderie and love; we were there for the music and the man.
JazzReview: It crosses my mind that with this recording and bringing together these players in this way, you are filling the role of mentor as J. J. Johnson would have.
Steve Turre: Oh, I don’t want that kind of pressure! You can’t fill those shoes.
Yet it’s true -- I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for him. But I have always taken my own direction and that was something he originally liked about me. He told me that and that’s something that has always kept me going and trying new things.
He was a living example of that. Right up until his last recordings. You know, Verve has still got two discs worth of unreleased J. J. stuff in the can that they’ve been sitting on. They were sessions where he was really taking his music outside, really stretching. He had a group that included harp, steel drums, me on shells, Ralph Moore on saxophone, piano, bass and drums. The compositions and arrangements were heavily orchestral, beautiful sounds. That’s the spirit I was trying to capture with One 4 J.
I’m very happy with this disc. It was a big undertaking. I could have just done it myself or with just Robin. But I wanted to have as many guys as possible who knew and loved J. J. I wanted to show the lineage. I wanted to show that it’s still alive and real and as much as people try to disparage it you know, the 'jazz is dead' thing it’s a continuum.
It’s like as a tree grows taller, there’s always the center coming up from the roots and through the trunk that remains strong. The stronger that center is, the stronger the tree and the more branches it has and the more fruit it bears. For younger players, I always tell them: you have to be mindful of those roots. You’ve got to know where you’re been to know where you’re going.