The gospel according to Steve Turre
By Greg Cahill
When Steve Turre was 10 years old, he told his father that he wanted to learn to play the violin. His dad was less than enthusiastic about the notion, noting that a beginning violin player sounded “like a cat in an alley.” Pick a horn, he advised. So weeks later, while watching a parade with his father, Turre noticed the line of shiny brass trombones glinting in the sun and placed prominently out front of the formation, so the slides wouldn’t crash into other players.
He was sold.
Almost 50 years later, Turre is the preeminent jazz trombone player of his generation.
A San Francisco native, he has a steady gig as a member of the Saturday Night Live band. But he has made a name for himself as a sideman (he was a member of Ray Charles’ band in the early ’70s), a much sought-after session player (check out his über-cool slide work on the late Lester Bowie’s avant-jazz spin on the doo-wop classic “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”) and as a talented bandleader. Indeed, weary of the monopoly status held by trumpet and saxophone players in the jazz world, Turre has become a self-described “trombone evangelist,” whose solo albums include a tribute to the legendary ‘bone player J. J. Johnson, the Charlie Parker of the trombone.
Turre will be preaching his jazz gospel on June 12 when he joins the Babatunde Lea Quintet as a special guest, opening for pianist Kenny Barron and violinist Regina Carter (with whom he has recorded), at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival.He credits the eccentric horn player Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who used to play multiple instruments simultaneously, with indoctrinating him into the realm of infinite musical possibilities. “The first contact I had that really, really changed my life was Rahsaan Roland Kirk,” he once told Online Trombone Journal. “This was my first year out of high school. I sat in with Rahsaan at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco and it felt like we had been playing together all our lives. It clicked immediately. We’d breathe in the same place. We would phrase the same, intuitively. I was just able to tap into his brain waves. There’s been two people in my life that this has happened with–Rahsaan, and later with Woody Shaw.
“We really struck up a wonderful friendship, and every time he would come through San Francisco, he would call me for the gig. I was a kid. He’d give me 50 bucks for working six nights, and I’d be happy. It was a real inspiration, and it encouraged me to continue.”
Turre already knew about such legendary jazz trombonists as J. J. Johnson, Curtis Fuller and Julian Priester. But Kirk turned him on to more obscure trombone missionaries like Vic Dickenson, Trummy Young, Dickie Wells, C. Higginbotham and Jack Teagarden.
Kirk also instilled a sense of adventure that led Turre to experiment with tuned conch shells. The result was the acclaimed 1993 release Sanctified Shells, an eerie but compelling disc that found Turre and several other players forming a unique Latin-tinged conch chorus reflecting his Mexican American heritage.
On subsequent releases, Turre has on occasion melded the shells with brass for an orchestral sound that is nothing short of sublime. “I’m still able to grow and be around people that share the same interest and inspiration and goals as myself,” he told Online Trombone Journal. “A musician’s like a doctor; you’re supposed to heal people. You make them feel better. As long as I can keep doing that, I’m a happy man.”
Steve Turre performs with Kenny Barron, Regina Carter and the Babatunde Lea Quintet on Sunday, June 12, at the Rodney Strong Vineyards, 11455 Old Redwood Hwy., Healdsburg. 1pm. $35. For complete program information on the Healdsburg Jazz Festival, visit www.healdsburgjazzfestival.com.
From the June 8-14, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.