Mark Turner-Transcriptions and Essays by Jeff McGregor Review

For the last couple of weeks,  I have been checking out two amazing transcription books by Jeff McGregor entitled Chris Potter-Transcriptions and Essays and Mark Turner-Transcriptions and Essays. I already reviewed the Chris Potter Transcription book,  and today I will be reviewing Mark Turner-Transcriptions and Essays.


Mark Turner-Transcriptions and Essays by Jeff McGregor

If you were to gather ten saxophone players around a table and have a discussion about who the cutting edge modern tenor saxophone players of this era would be, the names of Chris Potter and Mark Turner would undoubtedly be mentioned in that discussion.

These are two tenor saxophone players that have captured my attention for many decades now.  I actually went to Berklee School of Music with Mark Turner in the late 80’s and even then, I would slow down nonchalantly, bend down and pretend to re-tie my perfectly tied shoelaces as I walked outside his practice room so I could hear what he was working on.

Mark Turner is an incredible tenor saxophone player that I have always found to be original and on a path all his own.  I remember getting his first CD “Yam Yam” and being really intrigued and perplexed by it.  The music on that CD was unlike any I had ever heard before.  I listened to it over and over, and now, even 20+ years later, I still name that recording as one of my choices for my top 10 favorite tenor saxophone recordings.

What I love about “Yam Yam” goes hand in hand with what I love about Mark Turner’s saxophone playing.  The music is beautiful, creative and original.  The songs on that album convey colors and emotions as if the notes were on a musical canvas or landscape.  There is something aesthetic in the music that goes beyond words for me that I am enthralled by.

Mark Turner’s improvisational concept can also be described this same way.  His tenor sax solos are beautiful, creative and original. His improvisations create a musical landscape that shifts from consonance and dissonance while painting a sonic tapestry for the listener. Mark Turner does this without using many of the common tools and tricks most sax player’s use to get reactions from their audience. (bending notes, growling, repeated riffs, long loud altissimo notes, etc……)

The other thing I love about Mark Turner,  is that I never know what he is going to play next or where he is going to go.  When you are a musician for most of your life and spend most of your free time practicing, studying and listening to music, the most attractive music is the music that is new and surprising to you.  That is how I view Mark Turner’s compositions and his improvisations.  I don’t hear all the cliche licks known by every sax player, to the contrary,  Mark Turner always sounds like he is striving to create something unique and original every time he plays his saxophone.


Mark Turner-Transcriptions and Essays by Jeff McGregor

The Mark Turner Transcription and Essays book, like the Chris Potter Transcription book,  is a quality product.  It is spiral bound so the book can lay flat on a music stand or desk.  The pages are nice and thick quality paper that doesn’t bleed through.  The music staves are widely spaced with an average of eight staves to a page.  The solos, although incredibly complex, are easy to look at and read as far as the spacing and font sizes.

Here is a breakdown of the contents of the Mark Turner Transcription and Essays from Jeff McGregor’s website:

This new collection of 35 transcriptions draws from across Mark Turner’s discography. Also included are transcriptions from various bootlegs selected for this project. You can find these recordings collected here.

The accompanying collection of essays are based on an extended series of interviews with Mark Turner. They offer an in-depth look at various aspects of Turner’s playing. Excerpts from the transcriptions are also analyzed and discussed. A foreword by Kevin Sun provides the historical context of the transcriptions.

Transcriptions are all Bb parts. This project was edited by Jim Brenan.

236 Pages

This collection includes the following transcriptions.

“Lathe of Heaven” from Lathe of Heaven (2014)
“Sonnet for Stevie” from Lathe of Heaven (2014)
“Ethan’s Line” from Lathe of Heaven (2014)
“Murley’s in the House” from Solos: The Jazz Sessions (2011)
“Berkeley Street” from Solos: The Jazz Sessions (2011)
“Jacky’s Place” from Dharma Days (2001)
“26-2” from Mark Turner (1998)
“317 East 32nd Street” from Mark Turner (1998)
“Salt and Pepper” from Year of the Snake (2012)
“Year of the Snake” from Year of the Snake (2012)
“Perla Morena” form Sky & Country (2009)
“JJ” from Fly (2004)
“State of the Union” from Fly (2004)
“Lennie Groove” from One is the Other (2014)
“Teule’s Redemption” from One is the Other (2014)
“Yard” from One is the Other (2014)
“Ohnedaruth” from All Our Reasons (2012)
“Tolli’s Dance” from All Our Reasons (2012)
“Mellow B” from Quartet (2006)
“Iverson’s Odyssey” from Quartet (2006)
“Chords” from The Remedy (2008)
“Flute” from The Remedy (2008)
“View from Moscow” from The Remedy (2008)
“A Life Unfolds” from The Remedy (2008)
“Zhivago” from The Next Step (2001)
“Minor Blues” from The Next Step (2001)
“Stablemates” from Selected Bootlegs
“I’ll Remember April” from Selected Bootlegs
“Crepuscule with Nellie” from Selected Bootlegs
“Yard” from Selected Bootlegs
“Two for the Blues” from Selected Bootlegs
“Airegin” from Selected Bootlegs
“Jacky’s Place” from Selected Bootlegs
“Along Came Betty” from Selected Bootlegs
“South Hampton” from Selected Bootlegs

Mark Turner and Jeff McGregor

Mark Turner Transcription and Essays starts with a foreword where Jeff writes about the timeline of Mark Turner’s recording history starting from 1995 with his first recording, “Yam Yam” up until 2014 and the recording “Lathe of Heaven”.  He writes about the different groups and albums that the transcriptions are from.

There are many interesting quotes from Mark Turner throughout the timeline where he talks about the impact other musicians like Billy Hart, Kurt Rosenwinkel and others had on him as well as the NY jazz scene in the early 90’s with players such as Joshua Redman, Chris Cheek, Seamus Blake, Brad Mehldau and many others.

At the end of Mark Turner Transcription and Essays are more insightful essays on Mark Turner’s musical influences, his approach to improvisation and the impact of the blues, bebop and voicings on his improvisational language.

What I find most interesting about these essays in the back of the book are Mark Turner’s candid comments about himself, his work ethic, methodical approach and how his approach differs from many sax players on the scene today.

Especially interesting to me is page 205 where the subject of natural talent is addressed:

“Although Turner began to achieve professional success in his twenties, he was not a musical prodigy and he repeatedly asserted that he did not have any significant natural talent.”

Here’s a quote from Mark Turner from that same page on talent:

“What’s great about not being talented is that it forces you to do sh**. I am not saying that I don’t respect people with huge amounts of talent. It’s great to hear and it doesn’t mean that they aren’t practicing and thinking about things. The problem is that often the paradigm from students and the listening public is that musicians or artists don’t work. We work! The masters got to the places they did because they worked on it. They thought about it, they practiced, and they tried to figure out how to get these notes to sound incredible, bad-ass, spiritual, beautiful, and intelligent. You have to actually think about that, talented or not. It takes energy. If you don’t work at it, you won’t get there.”-Mark Turner

Mark Turner-Transcriptions and Essays-Sample Page

When one listens to Mark Turner’s saxophone playing you can kind of get swept up in the ethereal flowing aesthetic of it all.  It is hard to make sense of and almost sounds completely random to the listener.  Even I, as a student of jazz and improvisation, found little that was familiar to grasp on to intellectually at first.  My ear heard different flowing lines, but it was hard to latch on to anything.  I remember wondering early on, “Is this all completely random?”  Here is a quote from Mark Turner-Transcriptions and Essays that I found on this topic:

“After many hours of conversation with Mark, it struck me that there was never a question for which he did not have a well-defined answer. Over time, it became clear to me that there is little in his music that is not the result of a carefully considered decision.”

Today, I went through the entire Mark Turner-Transcriptions and Essays while listening to the recordings and what I was amazed by was the exactness of the notes in each of these solos.  Mark Turner is really nailing these chord changes!  Yes, there are times when he plays notes that are “outside” but as the improvised line weaves and dances above the harmony, Mark comes back and nails the next chord change perfectly. What sounds random to the ear is actually methodical and intellectually precise.

What you see and hear in Mark Turner’s improvisations in comparison to his contemporaries is a freedom that allows him to make more use of the upper structures of the harmony.  As I listened to Mark Turner’s solos and worked my way through Mark Turner-Transcriptions and Essays, I was struck by how comfortable Mark was with his fluid use of the 9ths, 11ths and 13ths of each chord as well as all the other note choices available in the chromatic scale.  Whereas I am so  diligent to resolve my improvised lines to a chord tone, Mark Turner seems perfectly content with starting or ending his lines on any note he chooses.

A prime example is the first solo in the book, “Lathe of Heaven”.  I opened Mark Turner Transcription and Essays thinking “Ok, let’s see what Mark Turner is up to on these solos.”  On the first measure of “Lathe of Heaven”, the chord is a Ab minor chord and Mark plays a low B to a dotted quarter note low C and then jumps up a middle Eb. My first thought, was how strange playing a C like that on Ab minor was.  A measure later he plays an E over AbMaj7 holds it out for 4 1/2 beats and then finally resolves to an Eb.  This is just the first three measures of the book! Already, the part of Steve Neff’s brain that has to follow the rules was sounding the alarms!

What I hear and see that is so attractive about Mark Turner to a jazz improviser like myself is a freedom and confidence that Mark Turner conveys while improvising.  You get the impression, and I think rightly so, that all twelve notes are available to him at all times and whatever he hears, conceives or imagines is available to him in the moment to play.  What makes this all the more impressive, is that he also sticks to the chord changes of the tune in a masterful way while traveling through all of these unique and creative improvised lines he is playing on his saxophone.

Here is a great quote from an essay in the back of the book from Mark Turner on his conception of improvisation and it’s place within his music:

“When you improvise, it is like you are playing a game. You have the freedom to move around, but there are rules. That is what creates the tension of the game. When you are playing a game and somebody starts cheating, everyone is like, “man, what the f***, why are we playing this game?”  In music, when you play some s*** just to get over and you are not really improvising, you are not playing the game any more. It might sound good, you might have cheated and made this move that kind of sounded cool and made you win, but everything you won has no integrity.  If you win the game through cheating, you haven’t really and the value of winning is completely lost.  For me, playing is the same. If you don’t stay with the integrity of your ideas, you lose the game immediately, even if what you did sounds musically better.  It is better to make some mistakes and stay with the integrity and keep going until it hurts. To me, that is far more interesting. I would rather hear somebody do that. Those are the people I love to hear.”-Mark Turner

Mark Turner-Transcriptions and Essays-Sample Page

Each solo transcription comes with the chord changes written above the solo. I find the chord symbols to be incredibly enlightening as I can look at them and imagine some things I might play over those chords and then analyze what Mark Turner chose to play over those same chords.  When his note choices are different than mine (which unsurprisingly is quite often), I can try to figure out what he was thinking or what harmonic concept he was utilizing.

Besides the harmonic insights that Mark Turner Transcription and Essays reveals, the other huge benefit to having this book in your collection are the rhythmic insights that are revealed.  A line from one of these solos that you might listen to and be perplexed by, can now be looked at and played slowly.    Now I can look at Mark Turner Transcription and Essays and see very quickly how he is creating these lines rhythmically and then learn from his example.

Mark Turner’s Blues Solo on South Hampton

Among the 35 solos transcribed in Mark Turner Transcription and Essays,  seven of the solos are based on a blues form.  A particular standout to me was Mark Turner’s bootleg solo on “South Hampton” which is a 12 bar blues and is in the video above (starting at the :18 second mark).

You can hear fragments of the bebop language that Mark Turner studied when he was younger throughout as well as MarkTurner’s unique note choices when ending a line on the #9, b9, 4th, #11, major 7th on a dominant chord, major 3rd on a minor chord, etc…. Somehow, in the process, he makes all these dissonant resolutions sound incredibly cool and specifically chosen for a musical purpose.

In case you missed the link earlier in the review, The Mark Turner-Transcriptions and Essays book includes many transcriptions from various bootlegs selected for this project like South Hampton above. You can find all of these bootleg recordings collected here on Youtube which is a great resource.

If you are a fan of Mark Turner, then this fantastic book needs to be in your collection. The book offers an inside look into the creative elements and technical tools Mark Turner uses while improvising.  These insights and clues into his improvisational process are invaluable to any student of modern jazz  improvisation.

Special thanks to Jeff McGregor who must have spent countless hours of his life on this project and sent me the book to review here at Neffmusic.  Of course, also a special thanks and heartfelt gratitude to Mark Turner who day in and day out keeps blowing our minds with his incredible compositions and improvised tenor sax solos.  The saxophone world is very grateful!

Mark Turner-Transcriptions and Essays by Jeff McGregor

You can purchase the Mark Turner-Transcriptions and Essays from Jeff McGregor’s site.  It comes in Bb for the tenor saxophone as well as concert key.  It comes printed for 35.00 + shipping and as a PDF download for 30.00.  I personally would go with the printed version as it is only 5 dollars +shipping more and I’m not sure saving that small amount of money is worth all the time of printing and binding 236 pages but that is your decision.   This will, without a doubt, keep you busy for many months in the practice room!

If you get Mark Turner-Transcriptions and Essays or have any thoughts, comments or questions on this review, the book or Mark Turner,  I would love to hear what you think in the comments below.  Thanks,   Steve

Disclosure: I received the book mentioned above for free in the hope that I would perhaps review it here my blog.   Regardless, I only review saxophone related products that I enjoy and believe will be good for other saxophone players to try also. Steve
Steve About Steve

Steve Neff has been playing and teaching saxophone and jazz improvisation around the New England area for the last 30 years. He is the author of many effective jazz improvisation methods as well as founding the popular jazz video lesson site Neffmusic.com.

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