February 12, 2010

In Praise of Mr. T

Tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine was born in Pittsburgh in 1934. He came from a musical family – his father, mother, and brother all played instruments. He played with rhythm and blues bands in the early 1950s before moving into jazz with Earl Bostic, Max Roach, and others. Throughout his career, he recorded with Blue Note, CTI, Fantasy, and other labels. He died in 2000.
     The original “Mr. T” is one of my favorite musicians, particularly for his Blue Note albums in the 1960s. He is underappreciated as a sax player, probably because of the more popular, cross-over material he did in the 1970s and 1980s. And perhaps he did become too commercial - success has its price, I guess. My feeling is that the material Turrentine did with Blue Note is so outstanding that he deserves reconsideration.
     Turrentine did some excellent work as a sideman with organist Jimmy Smith. Back at the Chicken Shack, Midnight Special, and Prayer Meetin’ show a great rapport between the two as they exchange bluesy solos. Also as a sideman, Turrentine appeared on one of my favorite albums of all time, guitarist Kenny Burrell’s Midnight Blue (1963). This deeply grooving album is the very definition of the Blue Note sound at this time, and Burrell and Turrentine try to top each other throughout. There’s not a dud on the album.
     His albums as a leader with Blue Note are also winners, a kind of soul-jazz soundtrack for the Sixties. His first, Look Out!, contains some great blues licks and that big tenor sound of his, particularly on Stan’s own compositions “Little Sheri,” “Minor Chant,” and the title tune. He has a very masculine and smooth tone, never harsh. A more subdued but still bluesy Stan can be heard in small group settings on Up at Minton’s and Blue Hour.
Hustlin     One of my favorites is his album Hustlin’ from 1964. The great B-3 organist Shirley Scott (also Stan’s wife at the time) and Kenny Burrell set the ground groove, with Stan bubbling above on sax. It opens with a great version of “Trouble” followed by a gospel-tinged number by Scott called “Ladyfingers” with powerful solos by both Scott and Stan. “Goin’ Home,” based on the Largo movement from Dvorak’s New World Symphony, provides a lilting and melancholy coda to the album. Hustlin’ showcases both his fat burnished sound on ballads and his more earthy, blues sensibility.
     Perhaps Turrentine was more of a straight-ahead player than a virtuoso, but his polished yet blues-drenched solos provided a distinctive voice on the sax for half a century. His place in the jazz pantheon ought to be moved up an octave.


  1. Stanley Turrentine is supremely underrated as a tenor. He has played on so many great, straight-ahead records. I love his sideman work for Horace Parlan and Ike Quebec, as well as all his recordings with his brother, Tommy.

  2. He suffered - at least among jazz cognoscenti - of being around too long and compromising his jazz integrity. Yeah, he did a lot of commercial, pop stuff later in his career. But in the sixties, he did some stellar stuff as a sideman and leader. Why dismiss all that for some kind of purity test?