An Interview

Brad Turner on The Definition of a Toy

The interview took place by telephone on February 22, 2004. Toronto writer Greg Buium spoke to Turner at his home in North Vancouver, B.C.

Greg Buium: The record is really great.

Brad Turner: Yeah, I’m really proud to be part of it. I know Dylan’s really pleased about it. He tends to be a man of few words about things that he does but I know he’s proud of this one. As he should be, it’s great.

Buium: How did Dylan mention this idea to you in the first place?

Turner: He mentioned it to me in typical Dylan style when he does take on the leadership role in a project, which he doesn’t do very often. But when he does he’s really on the ball. It was a year in advance that he mentioned this to me, that he had this idea to bring these musicians together. And I had heard Achim and Michael on various recordings that Dylan had lent me to check out. I was blown away by everything they did – the writing, the playing. I didn’t really know Mark Helias’ playing, but I’d heard of him. Dylan had told me a lot about him, too – musically and personally – and I was quite excited.

I was just really flattered that Dylan would ask me to be part of this. Our relationship goes back a long time but, really, for something of this nature, with participants of that kind of stature, he could have easily called Dave Douglas or someone like that to have been a part of it. But he showed a lot of faith in me to ask me to be involved. Now I’m not saying that I don’t think I have anything to bring to the table. That being said I know that there are people that Dylan works with, internationally, that play my instrument that would have been just as easy to get.

So I was really pleased about it. And being that it was so far in advance I didn’t really think too much about it either. But Dylan kept giving me updates, you know, as things were developing. I could tell that he was really excited about it. As I was saying, it’s seldom that Dylan will sort of take the reins for a project, like leading a band.

As it drew nearer I started to get really nervous. [Laughs.] I think I was most nervous not so much by the playing side of things but about the writing.

Buium: What did he suggest you bring?

Turner: He said to bring whatever I wanted. Being the diplomat that he is he didn’t want to put any sort of parameters on me. And I think he could tell I was a little freaked out when it came to the actual composing the piece for the project. So I went back and listened to things that I had with Michael and Achim with renewed interest. And he played some recordings with Mark and Mark’s writing. So I sort of got the gist of it. But I found it really difficult to come up with something that I thought was, maybe, not the usual fare for me. The projects that I tend to write for tend to be a little more, well, straight-ahead in certain ways. But I didn’t want to stick out unnecessarily, especially as a composer. It was really important to me to try and come up with something that would fit into the body of the work and help things hang together a little bit.

I just basically wrote day after day after day. Whatever came to mind. And I wrote it down, fragments and ideas and things.

Buium: How close to the recording date was this?

Turner: It was pretty close, a couple weeks before. I’d been trying to write a month or two before but it just wasn’t happening. So I finally thought if anything’s going to come it’s going to come out in short spurts, little bits at a time. So I just allowed myself the luxury of writing, basically, in streams of consciousness. And then when it was the 11th hour I stood back and had a look at all these scraps of paper that were all over my music room and tried to see if any of the ideas were following a common thread. For me, writing is sometimes a really fragmented process, especially when I’m nervous about something. But at the same time, looking at all these pieces, there were a bunch of ideas that really seemed like they were the same tune. Which usually will happen. So I put something together and brought it in. I kept it as loose as possible and they made it into something that I hadn’t even really imagined it would be. I’m really pleased with it.

Buium: How did the piece evolve?

Turner: It started out being a little more structured. But I said right off the bat, “Look, this is just a working framework for this thing.” I was fully expecting that these guys would have some ideas, and they did. There’s one thing that I learned about the musicians in this group: their abilities are matched by their enthusiasm and their ideas. You know, it’s great to play with such wonderful players but oftentimes I’ve found in that situation the attitude might be, especially when they’re dealing with someone like me who is sort of an unknown commodity, it might be, “Well, prove it. Show us. Entertain us. Write something for us. Do something. We’re not going to lift a finger unless you motivate us.” With these guys that wasn’t the case at all. They’re fantastic musicians and great collaborators, too. So I just let it go where they thought it might want to go.

It sort of departs in the middle and goes on a bit of a journey. Dylan, I think, had sensed when I was trying to put some stuff together, that I was quite out of sync about it and he even went so far as to say, “Look, just bring some ideas in, a few notes. We can improvise. These guys are fantastic.”

But the interesting thing about this recording is that while there is some improvising there’s a lot of composition on it. I was really, really impressed with that. But that seemed like the direction that it felt like it wanted to go: we’re going to use compositions but we’re also going to be free within them. And I think that’s what happened with my piece and I’m tickled pink with how it went.

Buium: What is “Queen of the Box Office”?

Turner: [Laughs.] We were sitting in the basement of the Cultch [the Vancouver East Cultural Centre] waiting to go on. I didn’t have a name for the piece. It was one of the assistants or one of the volunteers for Coastal [Coastal Jazz and Blues Society, organizers of the festival], you know, running the hospitality suite, whatever, was blabbing away about such and such an actress and I didn’t hear the name but I heard the quip, “…and she thinks she’s queen of the box office.” And I thought, “That’s the name of my tune.” It’s got a bit of a nostalgic thing to it. I was thinking of Norma Desmond, the silent screen star coming down the stairs. She’s living in a bit of a dream world. [Laughs.]

Buium: The piece feels like you’ve brought two fragments together.

Turner: Those were two little fragments that sort of complemented each other. [Starts to laugh.] I think those two were actually on the same piece of paper. They qualify as being part of the same initial composition. There seemed to be sort of an antecedent-consequent-kind of relationship between them, which to me is one of the basics of writing a simple piece. There’s this arch form where something tends to rise, it poses a question, and then something descends and answers it in a way. And it also leaves a nice space in the middle for things to develop. And then playing the outgoing phrase ties things together.

Buium: Did you bring in some chords for Achim?

Turner: There were some chords, really simple chords. Really simple. I knew that he would expound upon them and he did. And he had a lot of ideas, too. Achim’s funny. In the studio I tend to be a first take kind of guy, unless the wheels really fall off. There’s always something about a first take if you can salvage it that, to me, has a spirit in it that kind of is lost the more you play. It’s just sort of a general approach in the studio. But I don’t think Achim was satisfied with the first or even the second take of my tune. I think he thought maybe we could play it better. Or maybe we could come up with some other things. But that’s a testament to his integrity. He was really wanting everything to speak its voice to the fullest. And later on after he listened to the takes a bit more he realized it really was beautiful right from the beginning. The two takes we did were quite different, but I was really happy to go with either one. [Laughs.] I thought, “I’m just happy to be here,” kind of thing. But Dylan had some specific ideas and I agreed and we went with the take that we chose.

Buium: The piece reminded me of Miles Davis circa 1967.

Turner: Yeah, well that’s where I’m coming from. If there’s anywhere that I’m coming from on a consistent basis, it’s there, late-60s Miles Davis groups. And Wayne Shorter’s writing, Miles’ interpretation of his writing. That sort of aesthetic, where there’s a bit of a linear approach but at the same time the line implies harmonic foundations and there’s lots of room for people to move around.

Buium: Here, though, the middle section really is free.

Turner: Pretty much. I sort of rearranged the form right when we were recording it. A lot of times with me if I can’t make a decision I know there comes a point where I will make a decision and oftentimes it’s right when we’re performing or recording the tune. On the spot, I thought this would be a good way to alternate between one instrument and the other and then sort of freer sections and how the piano was going to interact. It sort of came together right at the downbeat. Which was kind of interesting, too. But with musicians like that they don’t need a lot of notice, as far as taking a turn or going in a different direction. They made it into something really great.

Buium: What are some other memories you have of the group?

Turner: I remember the initial rehearsal and being really impressed, or having an impression made on me, by the strong personalities in the room. [Laughs.] Really strong musical personalities and strong ideas and how everyone worked together. And, you know, there was some friction, some disagreements, perhaps. You know, trying to interpret what other people were saying and trying to get to the bottom of what we were trying to do. And everyone was tired, but I was really impressed with the fact that nobody was going to let anything go until we figured it out. [Laughs.] I just sort of sat back and watched the whole thing go down.

Dylan put together all these disparate personalities with a vision that it would really come together in a very special way, and obviously it did, but I think he also knew in the back of his mind that it could be volatile. And it wasn’t necessarily, but it was lively. When we got to the studio it was great.

Playing the duo with Mark was a privilege. He’s a fantastic bass player. I can’t say enough about his playing, his sound, his ideas. He’s a trip, too. He’s fun to hang out with.

Buium: Why you two?

Turner: I don’t know. I think Dylan thought maybe it might be a nice idea and Mark was definitely into it. So I thought, “Well, I’ll give her a go.”

The thing I found with Mark is that he can go in so many different directions. He can play really straight-ahead. And he can improvise freely with the best of them. For me, the fact that he has a jazz bone in his body sure helps. Obviously, that’s where I’m coming from. And I think he was quite accommodating with me in that little situation.

Buium: Dylan thought that everyone’s jazz background was one of the main reasons why the combination worked so well.

Turner: He’s told me that, too. I think that’s true. I mean it’s obvious when you listen to everybody that there’s a common ground there. Which I think made the playing of the compositions take shape a lot quicker, being able to interpret a written piece of music. I’m not saying out and out improvising is easier necessarily, it certainly isn’t, but interpreting somebody else’s piece, and making it come to life, that can be difficult for any group, like my quartet, for instance, and we’ve played together for a decade. But this group just got together and each piece, every single one of them, just came to life.

If anything, this record is also a great jazz record. There’s a lot of jazz playing on it. I don’t think Dylan had any preconceived notion about the direction it would take and I think he’s plenty surprised. I remember telling him, “Man, along with everything else that this recording is, it’s also a great jazz record.” It’s very modern, with beautiful writing, and some wonderful improvising over forms as well as absolute improvising.