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Steve Turre: A Living Dynasty

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Steve Turre is the real deal. He has performed with more jazz luminaries than I can name. He played with Woody Shaw. He was part of Art Blakey’s band. He recorded with Ray Charles. Add Dizzy Gillespie, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Tito Puente, Pharoah Sanders, Horace Silver, Max Roach, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and a whole lot more. Then there are the other trombonists: all the legends, including JJ Johnson, Al Grey, and Curtis Fuller, have called Steve to match up with them on recordings. That speaks volumes about him as a musician. He’s been in the Saturday Night Band for over two decades, and has been top choice in both the Readers’ and Critics’ polls in JazzTimes, DownBeat, and Jazziz for Best Trombone and for Best Miscellaneous Instrumentalist (shells).

Steve Turre’s playing is both modern and traditional at the same time. You hear the history of the art form when he plays. He takes you right to the edge—and then he steps over, but not too far. He’ll start off with a bebop line and then end with some type of rhythmic modulation or modal shift. He really speaks with his own voice. He’s incredibly proficient on his instrument. He can live in the altissimo range and there’s no strain at all, it just sounds beautiful. The bottom range sounds full and natural too, more like a bass trombone.

The shells are something special. Shells are a rare instrument, but they’re also ancient—people have been playing shells since they could first pick them up. Turre plays conch shells that have been cut at one end, and the sound is haunting, like a ceramic French horn. Rahsaan Roland Kirk introduced him to the shells, and Steve really took to them. He found out later that playing shells had roots in his  Mexican heritage, and that has added another level of meaning for him.

Steve has been one of my mentors, and I’ve been fortunate to play and work with him over the last 15 years or so. In our travels together, we’ve had some amazing moments. I remember once we were playing in Nice, France. We were set to perform, and they dimmed the house lights. Steve pulled out one of his shells and began to play. It just so happened that the audience included a lot of people from Fiji. One of them pulled out a shell and answered back. Then, all without any plan at all, the lights dimmed to black, and all these different people around the auditorium and up in the balconies began to play on different shells. Some were really small shells, some were big huge shells, and they were all talking back to Steve and he just kept the conversation going. It was like floating in space with ancient voices—it was gorgeous, unbelievable, magical.

Another really great experience took place in São Paulo, Brazil. We were performing at a night club there. Steve heard this popular tune on the radio, and in the time it took for us to do the sound check, go back to our rooms, and then return to the club, he had written an arrangement of it for our band. When we started playing that tune—and it’s a ballad—people just tore the club up! They were pounding on the furniture, and cheering for us like we were in a soccer match. The tune was Cartola’s “Inôcensia,” and it is one of my favourites to this day—I recently added it to the Oceanic Jazz Orchestra repertoire list.

Steve Turre is an incredibly gifted and versatile musician. He’s an amazing player. He’s also a gifted composer and arranger. On top of that, he’s one of best clinicians you’ll ever encounter. You’ll find trombonists who are flashier—with sound effects and great tricks. Steve Turre isn’t that person. His playing is always really melodic and emotional and appropriate to whatever he’s doing. He’s a true artist.

Steve Kirby plays with Steve Turre at every possible opportunity—including his visit here in March.

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