Joe Turner - piano
Expatriate stride pianist Joe Turner (not to be confused with the blues shouter and proto-rock 'n' roll singer of the same name) returned to the United States after a 26-year absence to perform a solo concert at New York's Philharmonic Hall as part of a special "New Orleans, Ragtime and Stride" program that impresario George Wein (an accomplished jazz pianist himself and connoisseur of stride piano playing) presented at the 1973 Newport Jazz Festival. Around the time of this concert, a number of superb recordings of the pianist with bassist Slam Stewart and drumming great Jo Jones were released on the compilation Poor Butterfly: The Definitive Black & Blue Sessions, 1971-1974. Some of the tunes from that recording are included in Turner's performance here.
The Baltimore native opens his set with a challenging stride classic, James P. Johnson's "Keeping Off the Grass." Turner's technique on this uptempo knuckle-buster is impeccable, his time flawless. No doubt the Philharmonic crowd sat in awe of his two-handed virtuosity after this dazzling opener. From there, he settles into the moody "Willow Weep for Me," a bluesy standard written in 1932 which was famously covered by jazz piano giant Art Tatum and later recorded by everyone from Billie Holiday to Wes Montgomery, Thelonious Monk, Hank Jones, George Benson and Pat Martino, to name just a few. Turner stays close to the downtempo blues form, only occasionally tossing in some of the double-timed stride flurries he was so noted for. Then he romps through "Caravan," the Juan Tizol composition popularized in 1937 by the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Turner's two-fisted version of this exotic Afro-Cuban flavored tune hinges on a mesmerized left-hand ostinato and contains some lightning quick right-hand filigrees to excite stride fans.
Turner next turns in a rhapsodic rendition of "Poor Butterfly," a plaintive melody written by Raymond Hubbell and inspired by the Puccini opera, Madame Butterfly. The pianist's mellifluous interpretation sticks close to the original melody and mirrors earlier recorded versions by pianists Erroll Garner and Art Tatum. Turner tackles Fats Waller's "Jitterbug Waltz" with an air of jauntiness and great affection, and he concludes his stride feature with a lively take on the engaging Swing era staple "Rosetta," a charming number written in 1933 by pianist Earl "Fatha" Hines and subsequently covered by generations of jazz players. Though much of the material from Turner's was written four decades earlier, it didn't sound dated at all in 1973 in the hands of such a vital interpreter. Even today, this music still resounds with a timeless quality
A Baltimore native (born November 3, 1907) and expatriate through much of his adult life, Turner often performed with a stogie in his mouth, perhaps emulating the jaunty style of Willie "The Lion," his Harlem stride mentor. An inveterate swinger, Turner got his first big break in 1928, at age 21, with Benny Carter's Orchestra. Two years later he joined Louis Armstrong's New York-based group and by World War II was playing in an Army orchestra under the direction of composer-arranger Sy Oliver. There followed a stint with Rex Stewart's band in 1947 before Turner left for Europe, relocating to Hungary in 1948 and eventually settling in Switzerland from 1949 to 1961. He moved to Paris in 1962 and lived there until his death, at age 82 in 1990. (Bill Milkowski)