With his long braided ponytail and Fu Manchu beard, Steve Turre cuts a striking figure, and his resume is as colorful as his image. In the 70s he worked with one-man traveling circus Rahsaan Roland Kirk, in the late 80s he played for Dizzy Gillespie in his flamboyant United Nation Orchestra, and throughout the 90s he served in the Saturday Night Live band. He’s also achieved a fair amount of notoriety for transforming the conch shell into a viable musical instrument; most people put it to their ear to hear the ocean, but Turre puts it to his mouth, blows it like a shofar, and uses a cupped hand to reshape the air chamber inside, creating a small but workable range of pitches. (For the 1993 disc Sanctified Shells he taught the technique to other horn men, assembling what sounded like a band of fuzzy trumpets.) On his main ax, the trombone, Turre’s one of the signal performers of the last 25 years. He plays what you might call “modern tailgate” trombone, a bluff and rhythmically biting style that harks back to the instrument’s roots in jazz–before the insect-scream extensions of the avant-garde, before the saxophone-swift virtuosity introduced by J.J. Johnson, before even the mellifluous crooning of Tommy Dorsey or Glenn Miller. He invokes the rough-and-ready spirit of 1920s jazz not by re-creating that idiom but by combining it with subsequent techniques, as well as with elements of other roles the trombone has assumed since: a mainstay of Afro-Caribbean bands; an ideal voice for the bittersweet longing that Brazilians call saudade; a potent analogue to primitive African horns. Turre also keeps faith with his famous mentors; at this concert he celebrates the underrecognized music of the much-missed Kirk. He brings to Chicago a touring band of spectacular soloists, including saxists Gary Bartz and James Carter, and a history of shaping even such individualistic talents to his inventive arrangements–as he did on 1999’s Lotus Flower (Verve), which features the same rhythm section he’ll have here (pianist Mulgrew Miller, bassist Buster Williams, and drummer Lewis Nash). Friday, February 23, 8 PM, Orchestra Hall, Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan; 312-292-3000.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Jackson.