Veteran pianist Ernest Turner hails from Durham, NC but has soaked up plenty of jazz through his university studies as well as playing in New Orleans before returning home and establishing himself as a mainstay in Durham’s burgeoning jazz scene. My Americana is his solo debut album after spending years as a sideman and live bandleader, most notably with saxophonist Steven Riley on his two Steeplechase albums. Over his twenty year career Turner has accompanied John Ellis, Frank Foster, The New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, the Heath brothers, Ron Blake, the late Paul Jeffrey, Nnenna Freelon, and Christian Scott, among many others. He’s also worked in pop and soul including John Legend’s recent A Legendary Christmas. He’s also an educator serving on the faculty at East Carolina University from 2006 -2010.
Turner’s music on this CD bristles with high energy, as he’s backed just by the rhythm section of bassist Lance Scott and drummer Jon Curry, the same trio that plays locally in Durham. The concept of this project was inspired by Ellis Marsalis who mentored Turner on how to develop a set list and saxophonist Jimmy Heath who gave him this piece of advice – “Every record needs to have blues, groove, and a ballad.” With those thoughts as guiding posts, Turner could have easily turned to the Great American Songbook but he wanted to cover songs that reflected how he grew up. He expounds, “So I focused on what I call the ‘Black American songbook,’ including songs from the church and spiritual traditions while running the pop/jazz gamut from Stevie Wonder to Thelonious Monk and Kenny Kirkland. I had a classical teacher in middle school who saw me leaning towards jazz, and she gave me a book of Fats Waller arrangements to work on.” So, Waller is represented as well as three originals which owe in style to his development through Duke Ellington, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock to Marcus Roberts and Jason Moran.
His opening original, “Return to Thanos” is so lively in the ‘blues and groove’ mode that it might rattle your CD player. The title is a playful nod to the supervillain in Marvel’s popular Avengers series. He then slows down the tempo for the ballad from the late Kenny Kirkland, “Dienda,” revealing his sensitive soulful side. Tuner then turns to Monk in “Monk’s Dream,” where he doesn’t replicate Monk, but instead swings harder and brings a fresh animation. Similarly, he breathes fresh life into Waller’s classic, “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”
Turner chooses to take a more obscure Steve Wonder tune, tapping into “If It’s Magic,” from Songs from the Key of Life, where he adheres gracefully to the melody while his rhythm section soft, simpatico support. Brisk tempo resumes in Turner’s Latinized original “Circles,” one he calls his ‘sorta modern groove-ish number.” We are then treated to stirring solo piano as Turner renders Thomas A. Dorsey’s iconic gospel tune “Precious Lord.”
“In and Out,” another original is in the post-bop mode, bringing similar sizzling energy as the opener. Turner describes it as ‘uptempo, minor sounding and simple.” Then, we conclude with perhaps the most identifiable African-American song, “We Shall Overcome,” which, incidentally, was penned by folk icon Pete Seeger. Long a family favorite, Turner learned it at nine years old and played it at his father’s and uncle’s funerals. He says, “…it captures the historical-meets-contemporary spirit of the project perfectly. After so many years of working with others and performing live for regional audiences, it’s wonderful to now have the opportunity to reach more people with my deeper artistry.
We all know it. Piano trio albums can often be boring. Turner brashly defies that stereotype. His music is exciting, soul-stirring, and highly recommended.
- Jim Hynes