Joe Turner - piano
Impresario George Wein, an accomplished player himself, had a soft spot in his heart for Harlem stride piano. At his 1960 Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island, Wein featured an afternoon program of such stride masters as Don Lambert and Willie "The Lion" Smith plying their trade. In 1973, two years after Wein had relocated his annual summer festival to New York City, he invited the great stride pianist Joe Turner (not to be confused with the blues shouter and proto-rock 'n' roll singer of the same name) to perform a solo concert at Philharmonic Hall. A Baltimore native and expatriate in his later years, 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 played early on in his career, 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 up until his death, at age 82 in 1990.
Around the time of his appearance at the 1973 Newport Jazz Festival, Turner made a number of superb recordings with bassist Slam Stewart and drumming great Jo Jones, which were compiled on Poor Butterfly: The Definitive Black & Blue Sessions, 1971-1974. Some of the tunes from that recording are included in Turner's performance here, which represents his first appearance back in the United States in 26 years.
Turner 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, Turner heads into "Willow Weep for Me," a bluesy 1932 jazz standard famously covered by jazz piano giant Art Tatum and also 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 with the downtempo blues form, only occasionally tossing in some of the double-time stride stylings he was so noted for.
Turner imbues the Rodgers and Hart standard "Thou Swell" with a whole lot of pizzazz. Coming out of the relaxed intro, he launches into some super-charged keyboard work that recalls another Harlem stride master, Fats Waller. With his aggressive two-handed attack, Turner breathes new life into this tune, which was originally written for the 1927 Broadway musical A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and subsequently covered by Bix Beiderbecker with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald, and Bing Crosby (in the 1949 movie version of the musical). 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. Turner's mellifluous interpretation sticks close to the original melody and mirrors earlier recorded versions by pianists Erroll Garner and Art Tatum. Turner finishes out his program with an ebullient rendition of Fats Waller's "Jitterbug Waltz" and a lively take on the engaging Swing era staple "Rosetta," a charming number written in 1933 by pianist Earl "Fatha" Hines.
Though much of the music from Turner's set came from four decades earlier, it didn't sound dated at all in 1973. Even today, this music resounds with a vitality and effervescence that gives it a timeless quality. (Milkowski)