I read Ursula Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven in high school. At the start, the plot was easy to comprehend; a man goes to a psychiatrist because he’s accidentally affecting reality with his dreams. But when therapy sessions of lucid dreaming ensue, the novel gets pretty far out there. By the end, I had no idea which way was up and which was down. None of the conflicts and their supposed resolutions felt concrete and I had a hard time detecting whether I had read something great or not. But that’s mystery for you, the allure of the unexplained. Mark Turner gets it. “I like when things are defined by negative space,” says the saxophonist in the press release for his ECM debut as band leader Lathe of Heaven. “It creates mystery when things are left unsaid, what’s left unsaid has its own meaning. This hopefully creates music with enough tension so that you’re riveted by anticipation.”
Turner’s music comes with a drop of tension, and it’s a card he never dealt from the top of his deck. I recall reading a review of his band Fly, also signed to ECM, which accused him of resting on his laurels by running through scales. But something that we all need to keep in mind is that Mark Turner likes to climb without a safety net. Just like in Fly, the quartet on Lathe of Heaven feature no chordal instruments — no piano, no guitar, nothing to catch Turner and trumpeter Avishai Cohen should they fall. And as good a rhythm section Joe Martin and Marcus Gilmore happen to be, they can’t exactly provide chords. So it’s up to Turner and Cohen to weave patterns that work for the music. So whoever it was that said “you can’t free jazz, it’s already free” obviously wasn’t thinking of a format like this. It comes with its own sense of tension and its own set of rules.
For all its exploratory tendencies and use of negative space, the quartet on Lathe of Heaven keep Turner’s melodies front and center. The title track is a perfect example of this. Cohen plays two notes, sustaining the second, higher one while Turner takes baby steps up and down the scale. No chord is provided, obviously, but you are struck by the melody and you have a decent idea of how the melody is intended to make you feel. From then on, that simple figure is stuck in your head. And with two wind instruments serving as crutches for one another, it’s all the more impressive and baffling that Turner hands so much time over to Cohen. Honestly, there were times I would have Lathe of Heavenplaying at work, my mind would wander and I would forget that this was a saxophonist’s album. Even when the two are harmonizing side-by-side, Turner almost always takes the lower notes and almost never matches Cohen’s volume.
No matter who is carrying the sound, when and at what volume, the music of Lathe of Heaven is quietly and sleekly breathtaking. It’s a prime example of how acoustic jazz can conjure new colors from thin air, like on the harmonically-drifting “Ethan’s Line”. Avishai Cohen seems to making up a whole new melody in the thick of his soloing on “The Edenist” (named after another work of science fiction). The album’s centerpiece, at least I think, is the near 13-minute “Sonnet for Stevie”. Expanded from a chart that Turner recently brought to the Billy Hart Quartet, Martin is allowed to stretch his wings with a free-floating solo at the start of the composer’s homage to Stevie Wonder.
Despite their self-imposed restrictions, Turner’s quartet is never at a loss for what to say and how to say it. The music builds itself up, scales itself down, flows its way through barriers and never suffers from any lag. It’s a fascinating microcosm of what acoustic jazz can really do for us if we’re just willing to pay a little bit of attention to it.