Ernest Turner: My Americana

★★★★

Self-released; Mar. 1

One of the best moments on pianist Ernest Turner’s debut studio album as a bandleader comes halfway through his solo on the opener, “Return of Thanos.” The main theme is a clipped dialogue between his right and left hand, the phrasing jagged, the hands interrupting each other at will. Drummer Jon Curry and bassist Lance Scott egg them on with complex, propulsive rhythmic patterns. After a minute of pointed conversation, everything clears out, and everyone falls into a loose, swinging groove. Turner’s right hand starts rolling between two chords while his left ruminates on some open fifths. They start sliding around, leaving the key behind, headed towards the outermost reaches of the harmony. And just when they can’t go out any further, everything locks back into that groove. The whole build is totally delightful.

Turner has been a fixture of Durham’s jazz scene for a decade now, playing in saxophonist Brian Horton’s band and running a weekly jam session at The Shed for the entirety of the venue’s existence. His knowledge of jazz history is deep, both intellectually (he has given lectures on jazz piano at Sharp Nine Gallery) and in his fingers. His sessions at The Shed were known for their freewheeling openness, the sense that any kind of song could appear at any time. Turner uses that knowledge throughout the three originals and six covers on My Americana to argue for a particular kind of Black musicality, one rooted in understatement and reinvention.

That sense of reinvention is on full display in his take on Fats Waller’s stride classic “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” The chords are probably in there somewhere, albeit drastically reconfigured and revoiced with a twenty-first-century slipperiness. And if you listen closely, you can find fragments of the melody’s original contour, but the proportions are entirely off. Turner, Scott, and Curry transform the song into something completely their own and imbue it with contemporary sensibility. But Waller still hovers, inescapable, in the background. Every note they play contains a certain quantum of ambiguity which invokes the characteristically exaggerated arches of his eyebrows. 

Throughout the album, Turner’s piano playing has a subtle sense of reserve. He’ll often sit on a couple of simple ideas, letting them iterate and evolve until he’s suddenly changed the color of the lighting. His solos and melodies have plenty of space to breathe, even on tongue twisters like the Thelonious Monk classic “Monk’s Dream” or Turner’s own “In and Out” and “Circles.” On ballads such as Kenny Kirkland’s “Dienda” or Stevie Wonder’s “If It’s Magic,” that economy allows the band to truly sing. And when Turner goes to church for a suitably ecclesiastic take on “Precious Lord,” the effect is ecstatic.

music@indyweek.com

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