Head Tripping Mark Turner Line

I've tried to get into Mark Turner a couple times, but I've failed each time. I can't help but be impressed, though, by his harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic sophistication; it seems that he's accomplished so much towards his aesthetic direction—one which simply isn't aligned with my own tastes enough for me to enjoy listening to his records for long periods of time (yet). I remember arguing about my opinion of Mark Turner with a friend once, and we came to the conclusion that perhaps it's not so much Mark Turner himself that doesn't gel with me so much as the numerous Mark Turner-ites who try to get that coolly intense vibe in their playing but end up sounding like bland, line-spitting automatons. 

Still, just because I don't necessarily like Mark Turner the way many other saxophonists and musicians do doesn't mean there isn't stuff I'd like to steal from him. I recently picked up Aaron Goldberg's first record, Turning Point (1999), which features one of Aaron's tunes, "Head Trip," based on Herbie's "One Finger Snap," break and all. I had a jazz whoop moment on my first listen through and had to transcribe this line (after the arpeggios):

It's got that sinuous, rhythmically displaced sensation that you can find in a lot of the Tristano disciples' playing, which I also have trouble getting into for leisure listening (it's always great for studying and transcribing, of course). Here's the line:

One of my past teachers had mentioned the power of the line, specifically the capacity of lines whose internal harmonic and rhythmic logic is so strong that the line can transcend most standard harmonic contexts. He was saying how a line that's incredibly well-designed and executed can hold up and basically "work" over any chord change. Lately, I've been thinking about this philosophy of improvising, which seems to have some alluring qualities but some disturbing implications, e.g., that taking such an approach to an extreme means you risk sounding the same over any tune, which I noticed in my own playing after a while. The immediate positive effects of such a philosophy is increased freedom from the more generic harmonic constraints of tunes and standards, but too much freedom can be detrimental to creativity, as many contemporary postmodern, post-everything musicians have discovered.

For me, a lot of my practicing in the past few years has been related to applying abstracted concepts to concrete musical situations; in this example, it'd be taking the notion of playing syncopated accented "pedal" type notes while having a rhythmic motif going on between, and trying to get that kind of a sound happening over different standards and time feels. This kind of approach is pretty popular at the New England Conservatory as I'm sure it is at other institutions (Bergonzi had a big influence on my practicing in this way), and it helps you maximize the amount of practice material from the smallest amount of initial input from transcriptions or listening. 

The problem, though, is that it makes it easy to forget or to disregard any intrinsic qualities or essences to certain tunes, if you believe in that. I remember attending a master class at some point in the past two years where the instructor mentioned how he plays differently over different blues tunes depending on the head because he considers them different songs, e.g., "Relaxin' at Camarillo" would be different from "Bloomdido" would be different from "Wee-Dot," for instance, which I thought was pretty thoughtful as an approach. 

On the other hand, I've been toying with the idea of having a universal approach whereby your improvisations are all connected to your own vocabulary and direction. What if every solo you played was a continuation or elaboration of what you played previously, but in another context (over another tune)? Then, the music that would result might have the interesting quality of sounding like a very personal interaction with the tune; it could also simply sound very sterile and solipsistic, like a person playing their own stuff over a tune without acknowledging anybody else playing. That's sort of a digressive thought experiment, though. 

Writing about and noting specific lines does have the weird effect of making me think about the process of elevating and even nearly worshipping certain lines, which I feel like happens at music schools more often these days. How important is the line? I've heard some music this summer that's made me think that if you take the opposite approach—relegating the line for the purposes of prioritizing group sound, texture, and direction—that might be an antidote to the head tripping-ness of overly-long solos that gets griped about a lot today. But, I'll leave it at that for now. 


  1. This line is a quote from one of his own toons, Lennie Groove....

  2. Ah, great catch, Andrew! Thanks for letting me know. It does make sense, since "In This World" was recorded in June of 1998, while "Turning Point" was recorded a few months later in August, although Mark Turner wrote "Lennie Groove" at least a few years earlier—according to this discography, as early as 1996, when it was played on a radio broadcast:


  3. Tristano's take on April has lots of this stuff. Check out the last section of this tune where it hits the Gm6 - - starts on the 2nd beat and keeps wrapping around!

  4. Could you tell us exactly which teacher told you about the "power of the line"? I had similar conversations with George Garzone while taking lessons with him a few years back. Much of his approach is based entirely on this idea.

    1. I believe the first person I heard say something along these lines (no pun intended) was Chris Farr, a Philly cat who teaches at University of the Arts. Another teacher I had, Felipe Salles (now at UMass Amherst), also brought up something similar in high school; he was a student of Garzone's and was inspired by intervallic/triadic approaches to line construction, so very likely directly related to Garzone.


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