Marsalis Jams: On the Fly

Ed Hazell
May 1, 2009
Alumnus Mark Turner performs tenor saxophone with his trio Fly.
Students perform with Fly bassist Larry Grenadier, far right.
Students perform as part of Marsalis Jams.
Fly performs at Cafe 939.
Fly bassist Larry Grenadier
Students jam during the Fly residency.
Fly drummer Jeff Ballard
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth

The band was jamming on "Oleo," but it was not your typical Berklee jam session. Student tenor saxophonist Tyler Riccardi was waiting to solo next, when saxophonist Mark Turner of the jazz trio Fly leaned over to him and proposed that they play together for a chorus, to "send you off into your solo." "I was so surprised," the fourth-semester performance major said. "It's not like I asked him. He just thought it would be cool to do. I was really excited."

No, the jam session at Cafe 939 on April 16 wasn't typical. Berklee alumnus Turner '90, along with the other members of Fly, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard, were jamming with students after their set earlier in the evening. (Groups of students who signed up ahead of time were selected to play with different combinations of Fly after the band's set.) 

Fly was in residence on campus playing and conducting clinics and master classes as part of Berklee Marsalis Jams. The brainchild of saxophonist Branford Marsalis '80, Marsalis Jams is a nonprofit educational organization affiliated with the Marsalis Music label. Unlike residencies that involve an individual artist, Marsalis Jams brings working groups into high schools and colleges. The program focuses on working bands rather than famous individuals, says Marsalis Jams director Bob Blumenthal, because "the collective experience is at the heart of jazz, yet it is often underemphasized or overlooked in jazz education."

The Art of Improvisation

Throughout the Fly residency, band members emphasized skills to improve the collective aspects of improvisation.

"When I started, I couldn't listen like I do now, I was just dealing with the saxophone," Turner said during an interview before Fly's set. "It's hard to deal with listening until you've mastered your instrument. My thing was to devise these little mind exercises to help me listen better. For instance, I'd play things that make other people sound good, make what I play in service to the entire band. Another exercise is to focus on one instrument. Pay attention to the bass player or the piano player, instead of trying to hear everybody at once. Or concentrate on one aspect of the music, like the rhythm—either the rhythmic phrases being played or the time itself. Or try melodic listening, listening to the guitarist or piano player's voicings. The color will be different depending on the voicings."

On stage before a full house, Fly put its listening skills on display in a set of elegant tunes, including some from its latest ECM release, Sky & Country.

"Jazz is an oral tradition. It's mainly taught from master to student."

—Bill Pierce, Woodwinds Chair

The trio was beautifully balanced, with no one voice dominating. Each player left plenty of room for the others to contribute to the group sound. On "Lady B," Turner and Ballard backed Grenadier's lyrical bass solo. On the multi-part "Emergence-Resurgence," Grenadier's bass vamped anchor's opening and closing sections that framed a fast middle section with subtle, fluid interactions between everyone. "Transfigured" featured more give and take among the instruments and beautiful blending of saxophone, bass, and percussion sonorities.

From Master to Student 

At the set break Woodwinds chair Bill Pierce presented a newly created scholarship in Turner's name to student saxophonist Jonathan Greenstein, an eighth-semester performance major.

During his remarks, Pierce recalled that when Turner was his student, he immersed himself in Sonny Stitt, Joe Henderson, and John Coltrane recordings. Learning from the masters is still something Turner recommends.

"Jazz is an oral tradition," he said. "It's mainly taught from master to student. In the past, you learned on the bandstand, but that doesn't happen as much anymore, so you have to do it through records—and sometimes playing with people."

During the jam session, there was plenty of solo dramatics, but some of what the trio had been talking about with students over the previous two days appeared to have sunk in. During the guitarist's solo on "Have You Met Miss Jones," his phrases worked with Grenadier and Ballard to create a tight ensemble feel. A student drummer's ride cymbal accentuated the walking bass on "All the Things You Are." A pianist's chord voicings added depth and color behind a trumpet on the same tune. There was a real sense of making music together, not just running changes.

When it came time for Riccardi and Turner to begin their collaboration, Riccardi was impressed by Turner's chops. "I was amazed at how easy it was to play with him," Riccardi said. "He had so many good ideas, but it was also so much easier for me to come up with ideas of my own."

Now that's learning from a master.