One of the most well respected young tenors in North America, Mark Turner has impressed everyone in the jazz world with his thoughtful and passionate playing on both his solo albums and in his turns as a sideman. In this week’s tribute concert to Hank Mobley in New York City, Turner will be taking turns on tenor with über-saxman Joe Lovano, which should be taken as a just estimation of his considerable talents as well as evidence of his rapid ascension to the top of the jazz world. On Ballad Session, Turner takes on 10 well-chosen compositions with what amounts to a super-group of young Turks: Kurt Rosenwinkel on guitar, Kevin Hays on piano, Larry Grenadier on bass, and Brian Blade on drums. This is sublimely smoooooth, mellow album, featuring Turner’s unbelievable rich and warm sax, with accomplished solo turns taken by the others here and there. For anyone other than this star-studded group, it would be hard to see this album as anything other than an absolute standout. Still, I have to admit that I expected a little more than I got. There’s no question: the playing on Ballad Session is superb throughout. It also happens to a little too respectful, even careful, as if Turner and company have been intimidated by these influential standards into playing it really, really, really straight.
The disc opens with a gorgeously romantic rendering of the Gershwin/Gerswhin/ Heyward composition, “I Loves You Porgy,” followed by a nice treatment of Leonard Bernstein’s “Some Other Time.” Turner says that his renditions of these songs owe a debt to Bill Evans’ take on them. It’s easy to see Evans’ influence and inspiration here, both in Turner’s sax work and in the accute longing that Hay’s tickles out of the black and whites on both tracks, and again in the Paul Desmond composition “Late Lament.” “Some Other Time,” “All or Nothing At All” and the Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark” verge on being saccharine in the sweet melancholy they evoke. Wayne Shorter’s “Nefertiti,” a composition so great that it can survive being played by almost anyone, is played exceptional well. Turner and Rosenwinkel coax a thing of singular beauty out of it; as guitar and sax build to an emotional crescendo, Blade stops whisking the cymbals (the sad fate of the ballad drummer) and comes up energetically on the drums in a way that takes the breath away. Indeed, it’s the Turner and Rosenwinkel pairing that seems to generate the most interesting and enjoyable music on the disc. “No More” finds them playing off of one another in a way that is—at one and the same time—emotionally moving and deeply contemplative.
I can’t do anything other than recommend Ballad Session very highly. There are few albums of ballads that could match up to this one, even if I find it a bit hard to swallow a whole stack of ballads at once. This is perfect jazz music to contemplate your fate to, to drive long-distances in the rain at night, or to console yourself—intellectually, that is—after a break up to. And how many albums can do all this?