Steve Turre: Shell 'n' 'Bone Man
“ The feeling of the music is more important than the idea. The rhythm of the music is more important than the notes. ”
and Hilton Ruiz, and he can also be found playing in Cuban maestro Arturo O'Farrill's orchestra. Turré is also an acclaimed shellist, or conch player, extracting warm lyricism from this unusual instrument of the seabed. He could probably get a tune from an old kettle. The release of Rainbow People (HighNote, 2008), which brings together an outstanding group of musicians, shows Turré in all his musical guises, and finds him in irresistible form.
His versatility has also seen him collaborate with Latin jazz greats like Tito Puente
All About Jazz: Rainbow People sounds like a very relaxed session, but just how much work was it to bring these musicians together and produce this record?
Steve Turré: Well, the music was actually the easiest part; probably the hardest part was scheduling because everybody is so busy. All the guys have got their own bands, and it was hard to find times when everybody could be in the same place on the same day.
AAJ: When you write, do you write with particular musicians in mind, or do you write the music and then try to find the musicians?
ST: Both ways; sometimes I write the music but sometimes if I know a certain musician is going to be present then I write something for them as well.
AAJ: What was the process with Rainbow People?
ST: I didn't just sit down and write for this record date; I write constantly, all the time. Things come to me and I put them down. I did a couple of tunes for the date but I have a lot of tunes that I haven't recorded.
AAJ: On this record, the voice of [pianist] McCoy Tyner is present in the Tyner composition "Search for Peace" and also in pianist Mulgrew Miller's chords and some of his playing and the writing. How big an influence has McCoy Tyner been in your music?
ST: Big time, a big influence. So is [trumpeter] Woody Shaw. I know his influence is present. Part of the reason you heard that is because we were playing with the modal concept. Mulgrew Miller and I used to play together with Woody Shaw, and [saxophonist] Kenny Garrettsometimes played with us too. Woody's music was modalnot entirely, but a lot of it. We were drawing on that experience and of course McCoy and John Coltrane were really innovators in that realm. I think that's why that feeling came out. There's all kinds of stuff on the recordsome Latin stuff, some bluesbut to be sure, McCoy's influence was in there without a doubt. I've worked with him a lot and I have profound respect for him.
AAJ: You mentioned the bluesthat's another vein that runs through a lot of your music, and also again on Rainbow People. Where does your blues come from?
ST: Oh, different sources. I've played with a lot of people that have influenced me in that realm[saxophonist/flautist] Rahsaan Roland Kirk in particular. I've played with B.B. King, I've played with Ray Charles, and [while] coming up, I used to listen to a lot of bluesand not just Albert King, B.B. King and Muddy Waters. I used to love the way [saxophonist] Yusef Lateef played the blues. He was a favorite of mine.
AAJ:You mentioned Rahsaan Roland Kirkhis influence on you is well documented and you started your career with him. I know he introduced you to playing the shells, but I'm curious to know where he learned to play the shells.
ST: Well, he didn't really play shells plural; he had a shell. He had all kinds of different sounds, man, he would blow whistles and ring bells and have a siren, and every once in a while he'd just pick up the shell and blow it. It had a real beautiful tone and I was really enthralled by the tone quality, by the sound of it. So he introduced me to the sound of the shell and I got one and started experimenting with it, and I discovered that if I put my hand in there I could change the pitch, and one thing led to another.
AAJ: There's a beautiful Ray Charles tribute on the album, "Brother Ray," and you succeed in capturing the voice of Ray Charles very well, particularly in the plunger solo...
ST: On a lot of my records, he was a big influence. You know, a lot of the younger musicians today are allergic to the bluesand that's the foundation of our music, so I don't quite understand thatbut I'm proud to play the blues. I enjoy playing the blues.
AAJ: What do you mean when you say they are allergic to the blues?
ST:They deliberately don't reference it, and in a lot of cases they can't play it, or didn't learn to play it and therefore put it down. They act like it's old, but the blues is an expression of life, and life doesn't get oldlife goes on.
AAJ: Do you think that a lot of musicians today associate the blues with outdated, outmoded music?
ST: The blues is never old. You see, there's two kinds of music, good music and there's the other kind. Are you going to tell me that Mozart is outdated? Are you going to tell me that Duke Ellingtonis outdated and old? I hear a lot of new writers today writing stuff for big bands and I still haven't heard anybody come close to what Duke Ellington wrote.
They can't play it, so they say it's old, but you see there's a trap there, and that is by calling something old and saying, "I gotta be something new," they're setting themselves up because in ten years, what they're doing nowsomebody else will say that's old. Why have you got to do something new? Why don't you just do something good? Do something with feeling, something that makes people feel and not just say, "Oh, that's interesting."
AAJ: There's another great tune on the album, "Para El Comandante," dedicated to [multi-instrumentalist] Mario Rivera. He was an exceptional musician, but an unsung figure to a large degree. How would you rate him in the pantheon of Latin jazz musicians?
ST: At the very top, with the greatest of the greats.
AAJ: Why did he only ever record the one album as a leader, El Comandante (RTE, 1996)? Why do you think he was not more prolific as a leader?
ST: That's a good question. I don't know. You know, the music business is a strange thing, but most of the time it doesn't have a lot to do with music. Sometimes it has to do with being in the right place at the right time.
Mario was from the Dominican Republic, not from the United States. He worked his way up to greatness by playing with Machito's band, by playing with Tito Puente's bandall the greatsbut I don't think the music business perceived him as a leader, even though he was a leader. He wasn't given that opportunity. He used to have a meringue jazz band that I played in called the Salsa Refugees, which was very innovative. I haven't heard anything like that before or since.
AAJ: Am I right in thinking that the Salsa Refugees never recorded a CD?
ST: Yeah, not really, no.
AAJ: Are there any live recordings in the can that might see the light of day?
ST: There's some probably. Maybe [drummer] Phoenix [Rivera] has some. I think that would be the source.
AAJ: Let's talk a little about trumpeter Sean Jones
ST: Sean is the baby of the session [laughs], though he certainly isn't a baby. I like the feeling he plays with, and his concept is more than one-dimensionalhe's not a one-dimensional player. Some players may have a great sound and they play that same sound on every tune, but he's not like that; he's very flexible. He can play the blues and he can play very modern; he has a lot of stuff going for him. He's an exceptional trumpeter.
AAJ: Do you have a regular touring band these days?
ST: I do a lot of different projects according to the situation, the gig, the budget. I do a lot of quartet, and then I'll do quintet, and I'm doing a new project, a Latin jazz project.
AAJ Can you tell us a little more about that?
ST: We're performing in a club called Smoke in New York on 106th and Broadway. We're going to record live and I'm probably going to do this with my own label, unless a record company picks it up in a positive way. It's going to be piano, bass, drums, congas and trumpet, trombone and, of course, shells. Ray Vegais playing trumpet, Arturo O'Farrill is playing piano. From Cuba on the bass is Yunior Terry, and from Cuba on the congas is Pedro Martinez, and on drums is Ernesto Simpson, another one of the great Cuban drummers.
AAJ: Is Cuba a country that you visit a lot and play in a lot?
ST: I used to go there a lot before the '04 elections and Bush closing it off. Americans can't go there; you get fined a lot of money. You know it's funny, they say they don't have diplomatic relations but they have a consulate therethey just don't call it a consulate, they call it an attach é. And they have an ambassador but they don't call it an ambassador. They have this great big housethis big compoundthey even have marines guarding it. This is in Havana.
AAJ And they also have a rather notorious prison as well, let's not forget.
ST: Yeah, Guantanamo. I'm not even talking about Guantanamo. That's a whole other issue. Bush just slammed the doornot even any cultural exchange. We used to go down to the festival in Havana as cultural exchange, but they won't let Cuban musicians come to America anymore, and we can't go there. It's stupid, man. It's pointless. It serves no purpose, and it certainly doesn't bring any good will. But I don't think those people are interested in good will.
Fortunately, they got voted out. The American people finally woke up. There are still a lot ofI call them haters. They have to have somebody to hate; they have to hate the communists, or they have to hate the Muslims; they gotta hate black people, they gotta hate somebody. Now that's old. You know, I never refer to Bach or Mozart or Beethoven as old because it's still beautiful. But that is not beautiful [laughs]. And that's not healing people or making the world a better place.
AAJ:What about someone like [pianist]Chucho Valdes? Can he come and play in America or not?
ST: Nope, not since '04. He can go to Europe or Japan but he can't come to America.
AAJ: And that's for all Cuban musicians?
ST: Yep, unless they defected.
AAJ: One person who was all about bringing people together was Dizzy Gillespie. His United Nations Orchestra had a truly exceptional lineup, didn't it?
AAJ: There are a number of Dizzy Gillespie orchestras on the go at the moment. Are you involved in any of that?
ST: Absolutely not, because they don't have nothing to do with Dizzy really. They're just using his name, and it kind of upsets me. They call it the Dizzy Gillespie Alumni Orchestra and there's maybe two people in the whole big band who played with Dizzy.
I am very happy that Slide Hamptonis being allowed to lead a band, but he is such a great writer and musician that they should just call it the Slide Hampton Orchestra. But they put a picture of Dizzy Gillespie on the marquee, and Dizzy is dead and gone. Dizzy wouldn't like thatI know Dizzy wouldn't like thathe wanted people to do their own thing.
AAJ: But don't you think that maybe they are helping keep the flame of Dizzy's music alive?
ST: Well, yes and no. They're not really playing his music all the time, and then they got Roberta Gambarinisinging with it, which don't have nothin' to do with Dizzy. It has nothin' to do with Dizzy or Dizzy's music. They are just using Dizzy's name to get gigs.
Now, if they were going to do a special tribute to Dizzy and they were going to play his original big band arrangements or some new arrangements of his music, you know? You might do that for a year or something and then give it a break, but they want to make it an ongoing gig.
Dizzy's name is gonna live forever. He was a genius, I mean, he was profound; I'm still in awe just thinking about him [laughs]. The stuff he used to play was incredible. I do think it's good to honor our elders and do projects from time to time, but they don't have an ongoing band of Louis Armstrong. They do have a Duke Ellington Orchestra and a [Count] Basie band, but the Basie band actually plays Basie's music and the Ellington band actually plays Ellington's music.
AAJ: And there are quite a few Mingus bands around as well, aren't there?
ST Well, that's a joke. They're playing his compositions so Sue [Mingus] can get the publishing [laughs]. They have three [Charles] Mingus big bands, you know. There's a lot of musicians in New York, so they got a band on tour in Europe and then they got a band playing in a club in New York, so photocopy the book and send another band to do a gig in California. It's just business. It's OK to honor Mingushis music was great music, he was a great writer, but it's just business.
But hey man, that's OK, but there are a lot of musicians out there today that have their own music and their music is vital at the moment and they're not getting an opportunity. The powers that bethe record companies and the promoters are not trying to build careers anymore like they used to, unless it's image-related.
It's image that they want to make money off, and you know, it works for a little hot minute because they've trained the American people. To me, it's a false premisethe whole consumer-based philosophy of life. They want a throw-away society where it's about buy, buy, buy, but that doesn't lead to happiness, man; it's a false premise.
AAJ: You've worked with an unbelievable list of people, but one musician who you come back to again and again, and who plays on Rainbow People, is Mulgrew Miller. What do you like about Mulgrew's playing?
ST: Oh man, he's off the hook [laughs]. He's another musician that is so versatile. You know, he plays the modern modal thing, he can play the bebop and the Ellington soundwhen I met him he had been working with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, playing in the piano chair when Mercer Ellingtonhad the band. He can really play the gospel blues stuffhe's from Mississippi and he can do that authentically, because he came up playing in the church, and he played in R&B bands. You know, he played organ in the church. He's not just one-dimensional.
We've been playing together since we were in that band with Woody Shaw in the early '80s. I think Mulgrew came in to the band for three years. Oh man, he's very special. And such a nice person too.
AAJ: You like the gospel blues in your music?
ST: Oh yeah, it goes back to Ray Charles and to Rahsaan Roland Kirk too. See, that's a good feelingit makes you feel better. To me, music is supposed to heal people. A musician is like a doctor man, it's not just about: "Oh that's interesting, good technique." It's gotta go deeper than that. It's about a feeling.
AAJ: What was it like touring with Ray Charles in the early '70s?
ST: Well, he really had a tight ship. He was very organized: they provided a clean suit for you; you had to put on a white shirt, patent leather shoes. It was very organized, very professional. I tried to memorize my parts just as quick as I could so I could listen to him singing, because it was so special.
AAJ: He had a reputation as a shrewd business man. Was he easy to get along with?
ST: I'll put it in no uncertain terms: Ray had zero tolerance for bullshit. First of all, he got his own music, so he used to go crazy on drummers and bass players because some drummer come in his band and wanna try and play like Tony Williamsor Elvin Jones, and that don't fit Ray's music.
If you're gonna play with Ray Charles, get some of his records and listen to his music. Figure out what makes the music tick and give him what he wants. That's what he's paying you for. Play his music, not Coltrane's music. So I just tried to play with the feeling that fit his musicany band I play with, I do that. And then when I do my band I do what I feel like doing.
AAJ: Do you have any plans to record again with the Shell Choir?
ST: I'd love to. I'd do it myself, but right now things are a little tight. If some record company wants to do it, I certainly have music ready for a whole other recordstuff that I haven't recorded before. It's definitely something waiting in the wings.
I haven't had the time, because not only am I doing the television show and touring, but I'm teaching at Juilliard now too. This year, I've been appointed to the faculty at Juilliard and I'm really enjoying it. It's a really high level. I'm honored to be teaching jazz trombone there. Young kids shouldn't be scared to apply to the jazz program if they're interested.
AAJ: Famously, Miles Davis dropped out of Juilliard to go and play with Charlie Parkerand Dizzy Gillespie...
ST: Tito Puente graduated. He went there and graduated with a major in composition. And Nina Simonewent there for a minute. Christian McBride went there for a little bit. So did Wynton Marsalis.
AAJ: Do you think that jazz can be taught in that type of institution?
ST: The jazz program is a little different than the classical program in that with orchestral music, which is wonderful music, it's an established tradition. The pedagogy is establishedthere are certain phrases for different composers, the way you interpret it. Well, that can be said for jazz, but jazz is still young in a historical context, it's still evolving. The way you teach it is a little different. I wanna make sure that a student can first of all play their instrument, and that basic principle is the same whether you play in an orchestra or a jazz band, or Afro-Cuban music or Brazilian music.
But then you have to know the history too. You have to understand the styles, and it's good to study those that came before us. And once you can really swing and play the blues...and if a student has their own voice, you encourage it, but at the same time if they don't understand anything about Ellington's music I'm gonna make them go study it, because as far back as you can go will directly influence how far forward you can go.
Otherwise it ends up being very shallow with no substance, an attempt to be different just to get attention, and that's not what the music is about. You gotta learn the instrument and learn the music and then be yourself. All you gotta do is be yourself, but that means you gotta be truly honest, and that's very difficult to do. Very difficult.
AAJ: The students that you have must study very hard, but how many of them have bands? How many of them have gigs during the week or at the weekend to practice in a live context?
ST: The school keeps them busy; they don't have time to do gigs during the week. They might do one once in a while, but the school gives them loads. It's not just private lessonsthey gotta take theory and arranging, history, all kinds of stuff. They've got a full load.
AAJ: So the students don't get a lot of practice in a club setting, a live setting?
ST: The school puts on a lot of performances, and they have several clubs in town that have the students play in them, and that's part of their class. And I'm sure some of them get calls for gigs but they've gotta make it fit with school.
AAJ: How does your teaching at Juilliard fit in with your touring?
ST: I mix it up, but you know, I don't tour so much. You know, I'll tour if it's worth it or if it's something I wanna do. It's worked out well for me because right now I'm a little disillusioned with travel. I used to really enjoy traveling but it's become a drag. They're charging you for every bag and they don't serve meals on flights and they charge you for a soda, a pillowsome airlines are charging you for a pillow. I still like going places, meeting people and playing for them, but the travelingthat's the real work [laughs].
AAJ: Is there much assistance from the government in terms of grants or sponsorship to help young jazz musicians with the cost of traveling or accommodation and so on?
ST: Well, they got the National Endowment for the Arts, but that's more for organizations. I think they give more money to orchestras and Lincoln Center Jazz and organizations like that, than they do the individual. They give small grants to individuals, but not enough to do anything substantial.
AAJ: You've been involved in jazz for forty years and you've seen a lot come and go. Do you keep up at all with the new jazz coming from Europe and from other places?
ST: What are you talking about? Are you talking about where it's all straight eighth notes and it's all about 17 and 24 and odd meters and there's no blues in it at all, and there's no swinging and there's no sense of African rhythm? Yeah, I'm familiar with it, but it doesn't make me feel anything.
The music's gotta have the African rootthat's where the music comes from. When you cut the root of the tree, the tree dies. As far as I'm concerned, that shit is a branch that's not gonna get any light and eventually it's gonna die, because there ain't no African root in it. They're deliberately leaving that part of it out.
AAJ: Yeah, but if you're from Norway or from England...
ST: They got a lot of that in academia here too, and they're promoting that here. Without naming any names, a lot of the stuff here is going that direction and I'm wondering if they're doing it just 'cause it's the flavor of the month or if they really are into it.
I don't know any trumpet player who can play more creatively, and more profoundly technically, harmonically and rhythmically than Dizzy Gillespie. He was the most advanced of anybody I ever heard, of anybody today or in the past.
AAJ: Sure, but he's an exceptional case, no?
ST: Well yeah, but I'm just saying that Dizzy always loved to play the blues. He wasn't too good to play the blues; he wasn't too good to play "Night in Tunisia" every night. I always enjoyed playing it with him but I asked him one night, "Diz, don't you ever get tired of playing that song?" and he said, "No, I'm honored that the people want to hear it and if I don't play it, I know they're gonna be disappointed." He said it's a privilege to be able to play a song like that you've written that means something to people.
. But he would still play all the music. He never limited himself and said, "This is old, that is new," he just said, "It's beautiful."
And it's interesting because Miles was always evolving and a lot was written about that and it was truehe did one thing and then evolved into another thing, and it was greatbut Dizzy did a lot of things too. Dizzy was not just the father of bebop, he's the father of world music. He did records in the '50s with tango, with Persian musicianswell, they call it Iran nowhe was the father of Latin jazz, he did records with Stevie Wonder
do always had a heavy African feel, in rhythm. The groove was always there; he didn't abandon the groove just to be different.
Mileseven though he would constantly evolve, and I think that's wonderful and it's inspirationalhe would always have a groove. Everything I ever heard Miles Davis
AAJ: You talked about Dizzy playing "Night in Tunisia" all the time. How much of a consideration is it for you when you come to make a set list for a gig? Are you happy to play the same set or are you always mixing it up?
ST: I'm constantly shuffling the deck. I have different bands that play different things, but I always like to include a blues of one form or another, maybe not always the same tune. I always include a ballad and I always like to include some kind of up-tempo number. I'll do some stuff off my new record, I might do some compositions that I haven't recorded yet, and then I might do a standard. I might do some songs from some of my past albums. It's not a set formula; I'm always shuffling the deck.
AAJ: You've played with a long list of great musicians during your career. Is there anybody who you haven't played with who you would like to?
ST: Well, it ain't going to happen but I've always wished I could play with Sonny Rollins. But I don't think that's gonna happen because he already has a fine trombone player, Clifton Anderson, who happens to be his nephew, and I know them both and love them both. And they're friends; they play so well together they don't need me in there messing it up [laughs].
Clifton's been playing with Sonny for twenty-something years, but I sure would love to experience playing with Sonny because he's incredible. I know I'd learn a lot. I also always wished I could have played with Miles, but that wasn't meant to be. The only trombone player Miles ever used was J.J. [Johnson]. And J.J. was...wow, J.J. did for the trombone what Charlie Parker did for the saxophone; ain't nobody come along yet to surpass what he did.
AAJ: Why do you think Miles didn't use any other trombonists after J.J.?
ST:Well, 'cause they weren't on the level; the level was way up there, man. And then it wasn't a popular sound eitherthat trumpet/saxophone sound that became a kind of standard sound. J.J. could hang with that, but a lot of trombone players just couldn't do that with the sound.
Miles had a beautiful sound, a big sound, and a lot of the trombone players who played fast would what I call 'eat the mic'they don't have a real sound. You know, if you took the mic away it'd be like pantomimethey'd be moving, but you wouldn't hear nothin.' But J.J., he had a sound like an orchestral trombone playerreally, really resonant, and it blended perfectly with Miles, you know.
So it's about the blend. Did you happen to notice that in all Miles' bands, the horns had a blend? Me and Woody Shaw, we had a real special blend; it was uncanny. The first time we played together it just clicked. And that blend's a real lost art, it seems like, today.
I also wish I could have played with Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong. I was asked to play with Count Basiebut I had to turn it down because I had other commitments I just couldn't get out of. This was when Count was alive, this ain't the ghost band, this was the real deal. Charlie Parker and Coltrane too, those cats were ridiculous! After all these years listening to their records, they still blow my mind.
Max Roach Elvin Jones, Papa Jo Jones and Philly Joe Jones and Jack DeJohnette. And bass players tooRay Brown; I played a few times with Ron Carter and Buster Williams.
I played with all my favorite drummersArt Blakey
I enjoyed Mingus' compositions but I didn't want to work in his bandnot that I was asked, but the guys in Mingus' band told me to come and sit in with them, saying he'd probably give me the gig because Mingus loved trombone. But when I went over there and I saw the way he was treating people, and how nasty he was to the musicians, I didn't sit in because I like to be in a band where everybody is treated like family and there's a lot of love going on.
But Mingus had this thing where he felt that musicians played better when they were mad and he would do stuff to try and agitate everybody and piss people off and I didn't like that energy. He was a bully. If you let him, he would treat you nasty and I don't like people coming from that place. You know, Duke treated everybody with respect; Dizzy too.
AAJ: Do you have any advice for young musicians, or for people thinking about taking up an instrument?
ST: I just wanna say to the young musicians that they should realize that music is deeper than just being different. You do wanna be creative, but you create by being yourself and therefore it becomes healing. A musician is like a doctoryou wanna heal people, you wanna make people feel better.
The feeling of the music is more important than the idea. The rhythm of the music is more important than the notes, and rhythm and the feeling of the music has the vibration of the earth and that's what heals people because nature is steady rhythmsthe day, the night, the years, the seasons.
When you're in tune with mother earth, the music becomes healing. When it is just an intellectual exercise, it becomes mathematicsyeah, it's interesting but you lose mother earth, you lose the healing thing, and there's a responsibility in this music to have that African root.
Do you wanna do music just to be famous or do you wanna do something real of lasting value and help make the planet a better place for all humanity? Look at how Duke Ellington brought so many people together at a time when America was truly divided. We have a black President now, but at one time it was Ku Klux Klan and lynchings, and even during that time Duke would give a concert and white people and black people, everybody would come together to hear this wonderful music. That's deep. The music put energy in the air that made people forget all their bullshit and feel the love.
Steve Turré, Rainbow People (HighNote, 2008)
Steve Turré, Keep Searchin' (HighNote, 2006)
Steve Turré, The Spirits Up Above (HighNote, 2004)
Steve Turré, One4J: Paying Homage to J.J. Johnson (Telarc, 2003)
Steve Turré, TNT Trombone-N-Tenor (Telarc, 2001)
Ray Barretto, Portraits in Jazz and Clave (RCA, 2000)
Steve Turré, In the Spur of the Moment (Telarc, 2000)
Steve Turré, Lotus Flower (Polygram, 1999)
McCoy Tyner, McCoy Tyner and the Latin All-Stars (Telarc, 1999)
Tito Puente, Fifty Years of Swing (Rmm Records, 1997)
J.J. Johnson, Brass Orchestra (Polygram, 1997)
Horace Silver, The Hard bop Grandpop (GRP Records, 1996)
Steve Turré, Rhythm Within (Polygram, 1995)
Steve Turré, Sanctified Shells (Polygram, 1993)
Steve Turré, Right There (Polygram, 1991)
Lester Bowie, Serious Fun (DIW, 1989)
Steve Turré, Viewpoints and Vibrations (Stash, 1987)
Hilton Ruiz Ensemble, Something Grand (Novus, 1986)
Woody Shaw, For Sure (Columbia, 1980)
Jerry Gonzalez, Ya Yo Me Cure (Sunnyside, 1979)
Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Boogie-Woogie String Along for Real (Warner Bros., 1978)
Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Kirkatron (Warner Bros., 1977)
Art Blakey and the Jazz Mesengers, Anthenagin (Prestige, 1973)
Santana, Caravanserai (Sony, 1972)