Saxophonist Stanley Turrentine: Soulful Jazz

Saxophonist Stanley Turrentine: Soulful Jazz

Written by Anne E. Johnson

They called him “Mr. T” and “Sugar Man.” Stanley Turrentine was a tenor saxophonist whose greatest inspiration came from two of the best jazz organists of the 20th century, responding to the organ’s rich, complex sound with a horn tone just as luscious and earthy.

Turrentine, born in 1934, grew up in a Pittsburgh family full of musicians. His father played saxophone, his mother stride piano, and his brother Tommy had a successful career as a trumpeter. By age 12, Turrentine already played well enough for Illinois Jacquet to invite him to sit in with his band. He had toured with blues master Lowell Fulson and had replaced John Coltrane in Earl Bostic’s R&B band before he was 20. After a few years in the Army, he got a job playing with Max Roach.

Jazz organ came into Turrentine’s life when he met Shirley Scott, whom he married in 1960. The couple made many records together. Among their close friends was another innovative organist, Jimmy Smith (I wrote about him in Copper Issue 119), who also collaborated on albums with Turrentine. The combination of soul organ and bluesy saxophone blossomed into a crossover sound that appealed to audiences who preferred pop to jazz.

In a way, Turrentine had two stellar careers – one in pure jazz and one in jazz/soul fusion. Not everyone in the jazz world was sanguine about his success outside their scene, but he kept getting hired to play with the best jazz musicians. After all, he was one of them. He died in 2000 at the age of 66.

Enjoy these eight great tracks by Stanley Turrentine.

  1. Track: “Light Blue”
    Album: That’s Where It’s At
    Label: Blue Note
    Year: 1962

In 1960 Turrentine signed to play lead on jazz records for Blue Note. That’s Where It’s At is an album he made with pianist Les McCann. The quartet is filled out with Herbie Lewis on bass and Otis Finch on drums. Finch was a member of Shirley Scott’s band at the time.

Although most of the tunes are composed by McCann, “Light Blue” is by Turrentine’s older brother, hard-bop trumpeter Tommy Turrentine, who usually worked with Max Roach. This track is a typical example of Turrentine’s warm saxophone sound and his malleable phrasing.


  1. Track: “A Kettle of Fish”
    Album: Joyride
    Label: Blue Note
  2. Year: 1965

Even within jazz, Turrentine was comfortable in several different styles. On Joyride he demonstrates his generosity as a player in a large ensemble. It’s a big-band album with arrangements by Oliver Nelson, whose cachet had gone up significantly in 1961 with his groundbreaking record The Blues and the Abstract Truth.

Nelson designed the arrangements for quintet plus orchestra. Turrentine was the quintet’s sax player; the others were Herbie Hancock (piano), Kenny Burrell (guitar), Bob Cranshaw (bass), and Grady Tate (drums). “A Kettle of Fish” didn’t make it onto the original LP but was added on the CD release years later. It’s interesting to hear the different energy Turrentine displays here, much more focused and intense than his bear-hug of a sound on That’s Where It’s At.


  1. Track: “The Magilla”
    Album: The Spoiler
    Label: Blue Note
    Year: 1966

In the space between big band and small group, The Spoiler finds Turrentine leading a nine-piece band, heavy on the horns. The other saxophonists are James Spaulding on alto and Pepper Adams on baritone.

“The Magilla” is an uptempo (by Turrentine standards) blues in a soul-influenced arrangement for brass chorus. Duke Pearson was the album’s arranger and wrote this opening tune. Turrentine really shows his blues style, expressing his solo with the expressive nuance of a singer.


  1. Track: “Lonely Avenue”
    Album: Common Touch
    Label: Blue Note
    Year: 1968

Common Touch was the twelfth and penultimate studio collaboration between Turrentine and his wife, organist Shirley Scott. They divorced in 1971. By this point Turrentine had started composing more, and he wrote half this album.

His best performance, though, is on a tune by singer Doc Pomus. The bluesy, aching “Lonely Avenue” perfectly demonstrates the saxophonist’s soul-deep connection to the organ. Notice Turrentine’s precise use of vibrato at certain moments – not just at the end of sustained pitches like some blues players and singers do – as well as his gentle accentuation of unexpected notes. Scott on organ and Jimmy Ponder on guitar offer some fine solos too.


  1. Track: “Get It”
    Album: Another Story
    Label: Blue Note
    Year: 1969

The great thing about being signed to a premier jazz label like Blue Note was that a musician could always pull together a top-notch ensemble. Unlike rock and country, jazz had less of a concept of “session musician” and more of an endless supply of temporary supergroups. Another Story is one example; for this quartet, Turrentine was joined by Thad Jones (trumpet), Cedar Walton (piano), Buster Williams (bass), and Mickey Roker (drums).

“Get It” is a Turrentine composition with a seamless blend of influences. Walton’s retro, stride-piano chords support swing interplay between Jones and Turrentine, while the solos meander deep into bop territory.

  1. Track: “Nightwings”
    Album: Nightwings
    Label: Fantasy
    Year: 1977

Typical of his years on the Fantasy label, Turrentine made Nightwings in collaboration with Claus Ogerman, who arranged the music for full orchestra. Although it uses strings (uncredited freelance players), the group is weighted heavily toward horns, with five trumpets, three trombones, and an impressive eight French horns. The mellowness of the French horn tone melds with Turrentine’s musky saxophone.

Ogerman wrote “Nightwings,” an example of the soft jazz fusion that a segment of Turrentine’s fans loved, and the rest couldn’t stand.


  1. Track: “A Child Is Born”
    Album: Straight Ahead
    Label: Blue Note
    Year: 1985

After a number of fusion albums on the Fantasy label, Turrentine returned to Blue Note. Like him, organist Jimmy Smith had always had one foot in jazz and the other in the R&B/soul pond. For Straight Ahead, those two artists teamed up for a soul-leaning jazz project, along with veteran bassist Ron Carter and drummer Jimmy Madison, who had experience with many types of jazz.

Also on the roster was electric guitarist George Benson, equally versed in jazz and R&B. Benson contributes a thoughtful solo to the Thad Jones’ composition “A Child Is Born.” Turrentine’s adagio melodizing evokes some of the tracks Johnny Hodges recorded with Duke Ellington in the 1940s.


  1. Track: “Don’t Mess with Mr. T”
    Album: T Time
    Label: Music Masters
    Year: 1995

The idea of T Time was to use a new band to revisit some tracks Turrentine had recorded in earlier versions. His main collaborators are guitarist Dave Stryker, who had worked with him many times before, and pianist/organist Kenny Drew.

At age 61, Turrentine still had the dexterity to match his poetic emotional range. “Don’t Mess with Mr. T,” an old Marvin Gaye number, oscillates quickly between 6/8 and 4/4 time, which Turrentine pulls off so naturally that you might not even notice it.


Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/public domain.

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