Stanley Turrentine: Tenor Titan With His Own Big Sound
by Kenny Mathieson
Stanley Turrentine had already established his credentials as a lyrical and inventive bop and soul jazz saxophonist by the time his music found a much wider audience in the wake of his crossover hit with his own composition Sugar in 1970. Turrentine went on to enjoy several more such hits in a pop-jazz vein in the ensuing years, but returned to a straightahead jazz idiom in the late-80s. Whatever style he performed in, Turrentine was readily identifiable by his rich, full-bodied sound on tenor saxophone.
He was born Stanley William Turrentine into a musical family in the jazz stronghold of Pittsburgh. His father, Thomas Turrentine, played tenor saxophone with the famous Savoy Sultans, his mother played piano, his brother, Tommy Turrentine, was a fine bop trumpet player (he died in 1997), and another brother, Marvin, played drums. Pianist Ahmad Jamal was a neighbour, and practised regularly on the piano at the Turrentine home.
Turrentine later told the story of how his father helped him develop his characteristic richly focused sound on his instrument (he actually began on cello, but he switched to tenor saxophone at the age of 11 after he was taken to hear Coleman Hawkins). His father made him stand facing a wall while playing a single note for hours, concentrating on producing the full depth and richness of sound from the horn. The exercise seemed strange and even pointless to the boy at the time, and it was only in later years that he really understood its purpose, and made full use of the foundation which it had provided.
He formed a band with his brother to play their first professional gig at the Perry Bar in Pittsburgh while still in high school. The saxophonist toured with blues musician Lowell Fulson in 1950-51, played with Ray Charles in 1952, then worked for a time with Tadd Dameron before replacing John Coltrane in the band led by alto saxophonist Earl Bostic in 1953-4.
That apprenticeship left him with a wide-ranging grounding in jazz, blues, and rhythm and blues which was reflected in the eclectic musical philosophy he pursued throughout his career. Turrentine acknowledged that he was not a genre purist, but argued that his own approach remained consistent, saying that Im playing with different settings, but Im still playing the same way.
He served for three years in the army, and resumed his musical career when drummer Max Roach recruited both Stanley and Tommy for his quintet in 1959-60. That high-profile association provided the launching pad for the saxophonist to form his own group in 1960, and he remained a leader throughout his career. He made his recording debut for the Bainbridge label with Stan the Man Turrentine, and cut the first of numerous records for Blue Note in 1960.
His Blue Note recordings of the early 1960s provide the most substantial jazz work of his career, reflected in discs like Blue Hour (1960), Up At Mintons (1961), Jubilee Shout (1962), A Chip of The Old Block (1963) and Joyride (1965), which featured a large ensemble with arrangements by saxophonist Oliver Nelson. His sound, rich and burnished on ballads, raw and earthy on uptempo material, was always rooted in a solid bedrock of blues sensibility, and that made him an ideal candidate to shine in the emerging soul jazz genre of the late-50s and early-60s.
Turrentine made several recordings with the instigator of that genre, organist Jimmy Smith, and is heard on some of his most important albums, including Midnight Special, Back at the Chicken Shack and Prayer Meeting. He also worked with organist Les McCann, and performed and recorded regularly with another fine organist of the day, Shirley Scott, who was married to the saxophonist until their divorce in the 1970s.
His big, hard swinging tenor sound was never going to be overwhelmed by the power of the Hammond organ, and his funky, blues-laced licks and powerful soloing were tailor-made for the greasy, down-home feel of the form, which became one of one of the most popular and accessible of jazz genres. As was the way of things at Blue Note, Turrentine also appeared on albums by the labels other leaders, including discs with Ike Quebec, Kenny Burrell, and Donald Byrd.
From the mid-60s, Turrentine began to explore the more commercial possibilities inherent in grafting his jazz solos onto pop material, covering versions of tunes like What The World Needs Now and Blowing In the Wind in a more easy listening style. He linked up with pop-jazz producer Creed Taylor on the latters CTI Record label in the early-70s, and immediately came up with his hit recording of his own soulful pop tune Sugar, which led to accusations of selling out from some quarters, but brought him an expanded audience.
He capitalised on that success with a series of smooth, often rather banal albums like The Sugar Man and Dont Mess with Mr T for the label. Although these are generally unimpressive settings in jazz terms, Turrentines own playing could usually be relied on to rise above even the least inspirational material.
He recorded several albums for Fantasy and Elektra in the late-70s and early-80s, then retired briefly before returned to the recently relaunched Blue Note label with with Straight Ahead in 1984, on which he called in several stellar guests, including George Benson, Jimmy Smith and Les McCann. He made two more albums for the label, Wonderland (1986), a collection of tunes by Stevie Wonder, and La Place (1989), a homage to his birthplace on Pittsburghs La Place Street.
He recorded several albums pf acoutsic, straightahead jazz for the Music Masters label in the 1990s, and continued to tour and perform around the world. His signature tenor sound remained firmly in place, and although he himself acknowledged that he was never a virtuoso, he did possess a distinctive voice and an individual style which made him one of the best known names in jazz for over four decades.
Turrentine lived near Washington in recent years, but died in hospital in New York after suffering a stroke.