Earl Turbinton Remembered
As promised, I've got a couple of examples of the late Earl Turbinton's alto and soprano saxophone work to offer in honor of his recent passing. For general details on his life, read the Times-Picayune obituary by Keth Spera. I'll just add a few more specifics as we go along.
I am fortunate to have see Earl perform at JazzFest several times, including, I believe, his 2002 appearance shortly before his stroke. Onstage, he was an amazing presence in colorful African attire whose musical statements were profound and spellbinding. A jazz master, he could take an audience along on his musical journey, altering our consciousness at will with playing that was both spiritual and passionate. Coltrane's influence on him was obvious; and it's interesting to note that around age 20 Earl got to play with the jazz-guru when he came to New Orleans. In his younger years, before studying with the great reedman Alvin Batiste, Turbinton's musical training was with bandleader and educator, Clyde Kerr, Sr., who had an enormous influence on the local music scene.
As with many New Orleans musicians who were jazz players at heart, Turbinton often made his living playing R&B, blues, and funk gigs. In the early 1960s, he was a sideman on the road backing Bill Doggett and Jerry Butler. But he kept coming back to jazz, developing into a world-class player. Evidence of that was his appearance on Joe Zawinul's 1970 solo album, Zawinul. As a result of those sessions, Earl was asked to join Weather Report, but decided against it. Wonder if he ever regretted that? Instead, he went back out on the road for several years, this time with B B. King's band. During much of the 1970s in New Orleans, Earl held down a teaching position while also gigging regularly around town playing jazz or backing up local favorites such as Professor Longhair and L'il Queenie and the Percolators. He also recorded with his brother, Willie Tee (Wilson Turbinton), on several notable projects. Tee, an impressive jazz pianist and composer in his own right who had made a name for himself in the 1960s singing soul ("Teasin' You"), started a funk outfit called the Gaturs around 1970, releasing several singles; but they never managed to get any national exposure. After playing on some of the Gatur sessions, Earl joined Willie for his groundbreaking collaboration with the Wild Magnolias, uniting funk grooves and instrumentation with the Mardi Gras Indians' unique music. The result was several local 45s and two historic albums for the French Barclay label. Then, in 1976, Tee released his own impressive solo album, Anticipation, which included backing by the Gaturs with Earl soloing prominently on several numbers.
Photo by Michael Smith
"I'd Give It To You" (W. Turbinton)
Willie Tee, from Anticipation, United Artists, 1976
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Earl and his brother's history of playing together goes back to the Seminoles, a band formed during their high school days in the 1950s. Enveloped in the deep cultural wellspring of their hometown, their musical expression took many forms over the years; and they both explored various paths. Yet, I think there was a special synergy when they worked together. So, I've chosen "I'd Give It To You", from Anticipation, featuring Earl's edgy, soulful soprano sax sound which had previously graced records by the Gaturs and the Wild Magnolias. It meshes nicely with Tee's ambitious soul/funk writing style. Tasteful and never over-the-top, Earl's signature riffing on his brother's material was free of cliches and always brought something original to the party. It is still surprising to me that Anticipation did not get more attention at the time of its release, and is still not well-known to this day. As far as I can tell, not a single track has appeared on a CD compilation. There has been talk about the entire album being re-issued; and I sincerely hope it comes to pass one of these days. An up-to-date remastering job could reveal what a well-made and played work this really was.
"Kingston Town" (Traditional)
Earl Turbinton, Brothers For Life, Rounder, 1988
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A dozen years farther on, the siblings collaborated again on a fine, fairly straight ahead Rounder jazz album for Earl, Brothers For Life, with Willie in a featured role as songwriter, arranger and keyboardist. It has numerous hip, well-structured originals and covers; but "Kingston Town", which I've chosen, has a different approach than the others. Earl's take on the traditional calypso tune re-casts it as a dance-demanding, drum-dominant three piece romp that celebrates the Afro-Caribbean roots of New Orleans second line funk. His alto sax joyously solos, riding the big beat waves throughout, as he, bassist James Singleton, and stickman David Lee, Jr. move the feel of the islands into the Crescent City streets. I love the carnival spirit of this piece. It's in sync with the musical pursuits here at HOTG, and certainly showcases Turbinton's playfully creative side.
This, I believe, was the only album released on the self-proclaimed "African Cowboy". Too bad for all of us that Earl Turbinton did not get more opportunity to show his stuff to the world. Another uniquely creative, deeply expressive, priceless contributor to the city's musical legacy has gone on to that eternal Jazzfest of the spirit. May we all some day, but not too soon, be in that number.