CD review

Mark Turner Meets Gary Foster

Mark Turner Meets Gary Foster
(Capri Records 74156-2. 2 CDs or LPs. Review by Sebastian Scotney)

What a remarkable album. There has been a danger that in the process of researching it and tracking down, for example, the links that set it so authentically and deeply in the lineage of Lenny Tristano and Warne Marsh, that I would end up ignoring the fact that two very great saxophonists, a drummer and a bassist have created a unique document of a remarkable live concert, and a superb album. Mark Turner and Gary Foster are both fine players with rich discographies, but will they ever play better than they play together here? I doubt it.

The first rabbit-hole to disappear down is to answer the question “Who is Gary Foster?” He is a saxophonist/flautist/clarinettist who has been a Los Angeles studio and film soundtrack mainstay for decades. He has (I read on Wikipedia – he doesn’t actually have his own website) “performed on over 500 movie scores and with over 200 orchestras”. A couple of random studio credits might be his playing flute and recorder on Bob Dylan’s soundtrack for Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid from 1973, or, say, alto sax on Natalie Cole’s Unforgettable… with Love from 1991. And, rather more relevantly here, he was a close associate of Warne Marsh and is on Marsh’s classic quartet album Ne Plus Ultra from 1969. That team includes Dave Parlato – yup, well spotted: that’s Gretchen’s dad.

Gary Foster is a fabulous alto player. There were two sides to his craft that really got me hooked here. On the sixth track, the standard What’s New, he is straight in, with just the bass for company, playing the tune lyrically. This is the studio musician who wouldn’t actually know how to do anything less than a perfect take. It is persuasive, it is perfectly shaped, it is just gorgeous.

And yet if one listens to his solo on the second track, Sonny Red’s Teef, played as a blues march, all I could think of was that phrase “who moved my cheese?” He plays the first 12-bar solo in a rhythmically regular fashion. This could be Art Pepper or Bud Shank. But then the fun, the cheese-moving, really starts. He shifts the rhythmic centre with every phrase, it is an astonishing exercise in sleight of hand. It’s a short episode and the audience hasn’t noticed he’s finished, but drummer Joe La Barbera gives him a little burst of applause on the cymbal. La Barbera was in the pianist Bill Evans’ last trio, and his subtle work and magisterial touch are another joy of this album.

Another constant pleasure is to hear how Mark Turner and Gary Foster combine, and also how they take the listener with them when they head off in their own individual directions. As a listener, one has the sense of knowing the musical characters of each them a lot better by the end of the album. Turner, for example, has a unique way of holding interest with his fragmentary, exploratory, questioning phrases. His big ‘feature’ is the standard Come Rain or Come Shine. At the start he gives a completely solo performance lasting about five minutes where he spins and paces a story in contemplative mood, yet there is never a moment when he loses the listener. It has the logic and the natural flow of a Bach cello suite yet never goes back on itself. He starts it with hints of the rising sixths of Monk’s Misterioso (an idea he revisits more extensively later in the album on another solo introduction to Subconscious-Lee) and has a magician’s way of gradually revealing fragments of the tune they are about to play. And then, the way in which Joe La Barbera and Putter Smith seem to join him in mid-flow, as if they are all finding each other in darkness, is quite magical. The album information tells me this track is nearly 16 minutes long. I would never have guessed: it held my attention throughout.

Foster and Turner were born just under three decades apart. But their shared understanding of the Tristano/Marsh idiom and methods is total. They dialogue and intersect fluently, right from their fleet duetting on the opening track, Background Music by Warne Marsh. And on virtuoso exploits like the mind-bending head to Lennie’s Pennies, they generate excitement and momentum. The endings of the faster numbers are perfect landings. People who choose to write off this style of music as dry, detached or overly intellectual will have not listened to the last three minutes of Lennie’s Pennies. An underpinning of urgency is there in Putter Smith’s fast walking bass and the intensity and fire builds up until the last statement of the tune, and the high-held notes at the end are triumphant and blazing.

A second rabbit-hole I disappeared down was to enquire from the label why this album, which was recorded live as long ago as February 2003, is only just coming out now. This is a live quartet recording presenting most (or possibly all) of a concert given in the Mary Pickford Auditorium at Claremont McKenna College, about 30 miles to the East of Los Angeles. This is the explanation from the label boss: “The recording was not made to be released. Mark (Masters) puts on several concerts a year and records them purely for archival purposes. Gary and Mark are very close friends and hang out regularly. Gary remembered the concert and asked if the recording came out well. Mark went back and listened, they consulted with Mark Turner about releasing it, and he wholeheartedly agreed.”

There is just one third and last rabbit-hole to follow me down, and perhaps the most unlikely one of them all. Putter Smith is a fine bassist (listen to the album!). One night in 1970/1 he was playing at Shelly’s Manne-Hole – with Thelonious Monk, no less – and the British film director Guy Hamilton was in the audience. Three months later Smith received a call from Universal Studios and was surprised when they didn’t ask him to bring his bass. The upshot was that he was immortalised as Mr Kidd in the James Bond film Diamonds are Forever. (LINKS: the scene from the movie on video ; the full Diamonds story)

This two-CD set is indeed a diamond. Its main hallmark is a constant, wonderful alertness and freshness from all four musicians. The live date has been very well recorded by the aptly-named Mark Masters. At this point, thanks are definitely due to Alex Dutilh and his team at Open Jazz/France –Musique on whose programme I first heard extracts from it. Mark Turner Meets Gary Foster is the best thing I have heard this year.

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