April 10, 2009

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A Trio Turns Back to Making Jazz, Not Firewood (NATE CHINEN, 4/10/09, NY Times)

Jeff Ballard and Larry Grenadier were in Europe last fall, on tour with the Brad Mehldau Trio, when they got the horrific news. Mark Turner, their partner in the dynamic post-bop band Fly, had sliced through two fingers of his left hand with a power saw while cutting firewood, severing nerves and tendons. Though typically low-key about his injury at the time — “I had an accident,” he wrote his band mates by e-mail — it was uncertain whether Mr. Turner, among the top tenor saxophonists of his generation, would ever be able to play again. [...]

Over the last five years Fly has emerged as one of the most compellingly cohesive small groups in jazz, with a sparse but supple chemistry admired by other musicians. Mr. Mehldau first heard the band in a New York club in 2004, experiencing “a pang of jealousy,” he recalled in an e-mail message, “because they had their own thing and were so confident and strong, and so graceful in their identity.” (Before long Mr. Mehldau overhauled his own trio in Fly’s image, bringing Mr. Ballard aboard.) Diego Barber, a classically trained guitarist from the Canary Islands, tapped all three members to play on his debut, “Calima,” just out on Sunnyside.

The members of Fly, now all in their 40s, have also become figures of considerable influence, and even some awe, among younger musicians. “There’s stuff on YouTube of Mark just practicing,” Mr. Ballard said with a chuckle during a group interview at the Midtown offices of ECM. “Like, ‘Mark Turner warming up.’ Four million hits.” (The clip has actually been viewed about 17,000 times, still impressive for what amounts to an arcane scalar exercise.)

Fly is a collective trio, musically as well as socially: each member contributes tunes, pulls an equal share of weight and helps determine the direction and shape of the music. It’s a familiar model of modern-jazz interplay, but it’s hardly common in practice, especially for the saxophone-bass-drums trio, a format that has evoked top-down hierarchies ever since the tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins adopted it more than 50 years ago.

The group originally formed, Mr. Grenadier said, “because of this ideal of ultimate democracy.”

“They always say jazz is democratic music, and it is, but there are aspects of it that aren’t too,” he said. “So in our desire to form a band apart from all of the side projects we do, part of the idea was, there’s not going to be a leader, and we’re all going to write for it.”




Posted by Orrin Judd at April 10, 2009 6:59 AM
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