By Nate Chinen - NY Times
Jeff Ballard and Larry Grenadier were in Europe last fall, on tour with the Brad Mehldau Trio, when they got the horrific news. Mark Turner, their partner in the dynamic post-bop band Fly, had sliced through two fingers of his left hand with a power saw while cutting firewood, severing nerves and tendons. Though typically low-key about his injury at the time — “I had an accident,” he wrote his band mates by e-mail — it was uncertain whether Mr. Turner, among the top tenor saxophonists of his generation, would ever be able to play again.
But five months later, after surgery and a rigorous course of physical therapy, Mr. Turner is embarking on a bicoastal tour. Along with Mr. Grenadier, a deeply intuitive bassist, and Mr. Ballard, a flexible and locomotive drummer, he’ll be revisiting material from Fly’s excellent second album, “Sky & Country,” which was released on ECM last week. The tour is beginning with a run at the Jazz Standard that continues through Sunday.
Over the last five years Fly has emerged as one of the most compellingly cohesive small groups in jazz, with a sparse but supple chemistry admired by other musicians. Mr. Mehldau first heard the band in a New York club in 2004, experiencing “a pang of jealousy,” he recalled in an e-mail message, “because they had their own thing and were so confident and strong, and so graceful in their identity.” (Before long Mr. Mehldau overhauled his own trio in Fly’s image, bringing Mr. Ballard aboard.) Diego Barber, a classically trained guitarist from the Canary Islands, tapped all three members to play on his debut, “Calima,” just out on Sunnyside.
The members of Fly, now all in their 40s, have also become figures of considerable influence, and even some awe, among younger musicians. “There’s stuff on YouTube of Mark just practicing,” Mr. Ballard said with a chuckle during a group interview at the Midtown offices of ECM. “Like, ‘Mark Turner warming up.’ Four million hits.” (The clip has actually been viewed about 17,000 times, still impressive for what amounts to an arcane scalar exercise.)
Fly is a collective trio, musically as well as socially: each member contributes tunes, pulls an equal share of weight and helps determine the direction and shape of the music. It’s a familiar model of modern-jazz interplay, but it’s hardly common in practice, especially for the saxophone-bass-drums trio, a format that has evoked top-down hierarchies ever since the tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins adopted it more than 50 years ago.
The group originally formed, Mr. Grenadier said, “because of this ideal of ultimate democracy.”
“They always say jazz is democratic music, and it is, but there are aspects of it that aren’t too,” he said. “So in our desire to form a band apart from all of the side projects we do, part of the idea was, there’s not going to be a leader, and we’re all going to write for it.”
Mr. Grenadier and Mr. Ballard had first played together during high school in Northern California. They both moved to the East Coast in 1990. Mr. Turner, who grew up in Southern California, came into contact with each of them separately in various settings.
“There’s less immediate gratification on the new record,” Mr. Turner said during the interview at ECM. “Not that the other one had a lot of that,” he added wryly, referring to the trio’s self-titled 2004 debut. It was only six weeks after Mr. Turner’s accident; his fingers were in a brace, noticeably swollen.
He noted that the compositions on “Sky & Country” tend to follow an episodic design, with multiple sections and fewer opportunities for solo heroics. The album has a kaleidoscopic feel, ranging from chamberlike intimacy to funk-derived extroversion, but feels more organic than eclectic because of the flexible relationship at its core.
“If you have all these sections,” Mr. Turner said, “it can help bring you in, just because things are changing. So instead of such a linear thing, it has more of a pastoral quality. It’s not so planar.”
No single member of Fly commands more attention than the others, but for now it’s only natural that all eyes are on Mr. Turner, whose accident set off waves of concern throughout the jazz world. Last month he appeared in his second weeklong engagement since surgery, at Birdland with the Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava. And he sounded reassuringly like himself, punctilious and resourceful, even if there was a halting quality to some of his phrases, a flicker of deliberation.
Backstage after the set, he briefly talked shop with the alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, a jazz legend of the same generation as Sonny Rollins. “It’s just so great to see him playing again,” Mr. Konitz said of Mr. Turner. “And, you know, he’s still blowing, man.”
Mr. Turner reported that his condition was improving week by week. “It’ll never be like it was,” he said, stretching his hands. “There are certain things I go for, and it’s not there yet.” Was he anxious, then, about the Fly tour? “No,” he said, and smiled. “Because it’s not for another two weeks. That’s a good cushion. We can work with that.”
Fly appears through Sunday at the Jazz Standard, 116 East 27th Street, Manhattan; (212) 576-2232; flytrio.com.
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