According to conventional wisdom, it’s been over a dozen years since Mark Turner’s last turn as leader on record. The tenorist was among the ill-fated crop of “young lions” courted and signed to major labels in the 1990s and summarily dropped when sales didn’t meet corporate bean counter expectations.
A harrowing accident with a power saw in late 2008 sidelined him for several months, but Turner has kept impressively busy, most recently as a member of quartets led by Billy Hart and Tom Harrell. He’s also co-led the cooperative Fly with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard, so the leader claim above becomes a bit of a misnomer.
Lathe of Heaven may be long overdue, but Turner doesn’t appear the least bit hindered by his hiatus from the driver’s seat. He makes the most of it on a program comprised completely of his own compositions. He’s no stranger to ECM either (both of Fly’s albums grace the label), and the imprint’s austere acoustics fit well with the dry, fine-grained tone he favors on tenor. His sidemen are equally suited with trumpeter Avishai Cohen completing the front line and bassist Joe Martin joining drummer Marcus Gilmore as the rhythm section. Gilmore is the grandson of jazz icon Roy Haynes and that enviable lineage comes through in the nuanced complexity he brings to his kit.
Sans piano the ensemble is free to engage in an open and elastic melodicism starting with the opening title piece. A spacious unison theme by the horns gains gradual rhythm support with Gilmore laying down a porous beat that seems to recede and propel simultaneously. Turner’s tone is rich and round, filling the studio surroundings as bass and drums parse a fluid time signature at his flank. Three of the six pieces stretch past ten minutes with two more surpassing eight, and all that temporal space allows for plenty of contrapuntal interplay and multiple seamlessly integrated solos. The ensuing atmosphere, at times dreamlike, but never soporific, directly references the thematic thrust of the science fiction novel by Ursula K. Le Guin from which Turner adopts the album title.
“Year of the Rabbit” expands off a thrumming bass ostinato and an extended tandem statement by the horns, Gilmore adding cymbal and snare accents to the forward trajectory. Cohen’s burnished improvisation is ripe with timbral effects as Martin keeps the tension ratcheted by working over another vamp. Turner’s response glides through his instrument’s registers from bottom to upper as fluttering phrases peel off with disarming alacrity. Drums and bass annex the tail end of the piece for an extended conversation. “The Edenist” pivots on Martin’s steady pulse as well and anchor around which the other band members orbit with lush voicings.
“Ethan’s Line.” dedicated to Turner colleague Ethan Iverson, is outfitted with an ear-worming melody. “Sonnet for Stevie” is slowed down and aerated to a relaxing shuffle quite removed from the versions included on a recent Billy Hart record and a duo project with pianist Baptiste Trotignon. That sort of willingness to revisit and reshape past pieces offers additional evidence of Turner’s quiet confidence in both his own faculties and those of his colleagues.