FEATURE/INTERVIEW: John Turville (new album Head First out 22 Feb, and touring)

John Turville
Photo Credit: Rob Blackham
The pianist John Taylor, who died three and a bit years ago, left behind not only a discography of great recordings and a fine catalogue of compositions, but also a band of disciples in his former students. John Fordham singles out the most admired of that cohort, JOHN TURVILLE, who  has a new album out and is touring it around the UK.  

When the great British pianist John Taylor died suddenly at 72 on a concert in France in 2015, shock and sadness at the loss of this most wittily diffident of master musicians reverberated all over the jazz world, across Europe and beyond. Taylor was not only a byzantine but vividly accessible improviser – deservedly regarded as being in a league alongside his own early heroes Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner – but also a composing original who could bridge jazz and modern-classical methods in pieces that challenged improvisers with fascinating choices, whilst remaining as seductive as good songs.

Taylor left a unique body of work behind, but also – like such piano inspirations as Evans, Hancock, Tyner, and Keith Jarrett – a new generation of creatively liberated young devotees. John Turville, the 39 year-old Nottingham-raised pianist/composer and educator, is one of the most assured, admired, and versatile of Taylor’s student flock. He studied classical music at Cambridge University, and then jazz at London’s Guildhall in the early 2000s, and has worked widely as a sideman and teacher – but his new album Head First is only his third as a leader. On the evidence of this idiomatically varied and beautifully-played venture, Turville has made creative leaps in both the breadth of his repertoire and the richness of his ensemble sound – now fully exploring the classic small-band jazz format of a brass and reeds-led quintet, with no less a luminary than Loose Tubes co-founder and long-time John Taylor sidekick Julian Arguelles on saxophones.

The programme embraces the riffy, percussive Fall Out (once a big-format arrangement from the pianist’s work with Walthamstow’s E17 workshop band), the cinematic, free-jazzy Seahorses, the bright samba of the Fred Hersch-inspired title track, the English rural calm of the Tayloresque Ennerdale, and affectionate homages to two personal favourites, Buenos Aires modern-tango composer Diego Schissi, and Brazilian guitarist Toninho Horta. Head First launches with a 15-date UK tour this month.

John Turville is an enthusiast, and it shows in the irrepressible eagerness with which he will discuss anything and everything musical, from the influence of French composers Olivier Messiaen or Maurice Ravel on postbop harmonic conceptions, to Joe Henderson and the 1960s Blue Note hard bop sound, or the connecting tissue between Bill Evans and Thelonious Monk in the work of another big personal influence, the great American pianist Fred Hersch. The title for Head First is a playful juggle with Hersch’s name, but the starting point for this new phase in John Turville’s career was the Jazz Piano Summit in Taylor’s honour at London’s Southbank in September 2015. The gig had been booked as a showcase for Taylor himself, and some of his favourite pianists including the German prodigy Michael Wollny, and Britain’s Gwilym Simcock. In the event, it turned out to be a valediction, performed in solos and duos by eight Taylor-influenced pianists in all, including Turville.

"I wrote a piece for the Summit I called A Perfect Foil," Turville recalls, "which referred to a tune of John’s just called Foil, based on a 12-tone row. It got me thinking about doing some more writing – not just to explore that blend of jazz swing and chamber-music that John played so well, but also perhaps to reflect my own ways of mixing all the stuff I liked, the French classical thing, the Blue Note bebop thing, Brazilian samba and Argentinian tango, John’s and Kenny Wheeler’s influences, and so on. Then Julian came into the picture, who was so close to John and Kenny. I’d already had a play with him with the bassist Dave Manington and drummer Tim Giles, which he was nice enough to say was the most musical thing he’d done in a while. So I wrote some new pieces, asked Julian to join me and was in a dream when he accepted, and brought in Robbie Robson on trumpet, who I’d known since my Guildhall days."

John Turville Quintet
Photo Credit: Rob Blackham
With Dave Whitford on bass and James Maddren on drums, the quintet met for two days in April 2017, at the Artesuono Studio in Udine, where Turville had recorded his 2009 trio album Midas. If the leader had had any doubts about how new material and a new band might gel, they soon vanished.

"The vibe was there from the start," Turville reports with feeling. "The place, the piano, the wonderful engineer Stefano Amerio, and above all the musicians. Julian can hear the Taylor harmonies in my writing, and responds to them as he’d done so unbelievably well in his amazing duo with John, and though he and Robbie – who has both a Kenny Wheeler and Miles vibe to his sound – play completely differently, they both have incredible ears and play some wonderful improvised counterpoint together. I can’t wait to get on the road with them all, playing all those back-to-back gigs for a fortnight, sharing all the ways they’ll develop this music as we go.’

John Turville’s Head First is out on Whirlwind Recordings on 22 February 2019. The quintet tours the UK until 9 March.

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