FILM REVIEW: Richard Turner: A Life In Music

Richard Turner
Photo courtesy of Rob Cope


Richard Turner: A Life In Music
(Directed by Rob Cope. Screening at Royal Academy of Music, 11 April 2019. Film Review by Peter Jones


London’s Royal Academy of Music played host last week to the almost-premiere of a new jazz documentary dedicated to the late trumpeter Richard Turner. Almost, because in honour of Turner’s birthplace, the film was first shown at Leeds College of Music two days earlier. The film was produced and directed by another young jazz musician, Rob Cope, whose regular interview vehicle The Jazz Podcast has enlivened London’s jazz scene in recent years.

For those who didn’t know, Turner was an alumnus of both Leeds College and the Royal Academy. He quickly established himself as both a prodigiously gifted jazz musician and gig promoter. Playing with the pop band Friendly Fires and Gary Husband’s fusion group Drive, he made only one album (on the F-IRE Collective label in 2010 - link to review below) featuring his own compositions - as leader of the band Round Trip. It featured the chordless line-up of Mike Chillingworth (alto sax), Tom Farmer (bass) and Josh Morrison (drums). Turner’s other great contribution to UK jazz, in October 2006, was to launch the Con Cellar Bar gig at the Constitution pub in Camden.

The reason Turner has left relatively little behind was that he died at the shockingly early age of 27. This is not the only reason he has been compared with Clifford Brown, who departed this world aged only 25: Turner’s tone was equally warm and his playing as technically accomplished, sophisticated and lyrical as Brown’s. But Turner was also not afraid to play “out” as and when the mood took him.

Rob Cope’s film, crowdfunded through Kickstarter, is his debut as a director, and has been talked of as the first in a possible series. It held my attention for its full hour-and-a-half running time, a succession of interviewees recalling Richard Turner with a great deal of warmth, humour and insight. Many of them were in the room for the screening, including his mother Christine. We learned, among other things, that as a small child, Richard refused to play the recorder or the violin, and picked up the trumpet instead for no reason anyone could fathom, producing a coherent note immediately. Thereafter he was rarely separated from it.

Richard Turner was a natural improviser who understood very early on the need for narrative – the connectedness and overall trajectory of the notes - in his solos. As well as being highly creative, he was a disciplined musician, constantly transcribing and practising tunes in all 12 keys, and developing musical themes rather than merely reproducing someone else’s work. As a composer, he would often write tunes without giving them a title until the moment he had to play them on stage, much to the discomfort of the band. One was titled Shit Blues.

A powerful and enthusiastic swimmer, Richard Turner died in 2011, his promise snuffed out by a ruptured aortic aneurysm whilst in the water at South London’s Brockwell lido.

Many a documentary has foundered on the rocks of Death by Talking Head, a hazard narrowly avoided by Cope thanks to the quality of his interviewees’ contributions. Likewise, he has rightly eschewed the intrusive authorial voice-over. Many a jazz documentary has actually been shipwrecked on the rocks of prohibitive royalty payments for the soundtrack. This fate, too, is avoided here, thanks to a delicate original piano score and the availability of music from the Round Trip album.

Links: John Fordham's Guardian obituary
Rob Cope's The Jazz Podcast
CD Review of Round Trip by Chris Parker
Our news story with several links and tributes reporting Richard Turner's death in 2011
2012 tribute to Richard Turner by George Crowley

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