Steve Turre’s Sanctified Shells

Steve Turre had already made a name for himself with his strong-willed trombone playing–as a prominent member of bands led by such jazz greats as Dizzy Gillespie, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and Woody Shaw (and as a sometime studio sideman with Santana)–when he started playing seashells. As in seashells, from the seashore. Blowing into the small end of a conch shell and using one hand to fill the large end–thus altering the air column within–Turre taught himself to control pitch, and to some extent timbre, on these simple “instruments.” He used them first as a novelty; eventually, after he’d achieved enough expertise to solo convincingly, he taught several other trombonists to play the shells, resulting in the 1993 album that gave this group its name. (“Sanctified” refers to the use of these instruments in religious rituals in the tropics, but that old shell game never sounded like this.) The whole thing is interesting just as a visual spectacle, but don’t let that discount the shells’ musical value. They have a soft-edged, organic, somewhat diffuse tone, and they “throw their voice” in the same way that French horns seem to; when playing ensemble passages in harmony, they sound like a balmy chorus of furry trumpets. The tropical illusion they can cast works perfectly in the Africanized rhythms and idioms of the Caribbean, which have fascinated Turre throughout his career. Indeed, his imaginative command of those rhythms constitutes the real core not only of the music played by the Sanctified Shells but also of his upcoming Verve album Steve Turre, which blends them into a panoramic picture of the African diaspora. Such warm-weather echoes may seem a bit premature, but they nonetheless represent one of the sure harbingers of spring in Chicago: the return of full-week engagements at the Jazz Showcase, after two months of truncated winter weekend gigs. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 and 10 PM, next Friday and Saturday, February 28 and March 1, 9 and 11 PM, and next Sunday, March 2, 4, 8, and 10 PM, Jazz Showcase, 59 W. Grand; 312-670-2473. NEIL TESSER

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Steve Turre photo.