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  October 2008
"Jazz Feature Interview" Al Turner
Interview by Baldwin "Smitty" Smith

al turnerJazz Monthly:   Well, my next guess is an incredible bass player.  He hails from Detroit, Michigan, and if you don’t know who this cat is, you really need to ask somebody.  He goes by the name “The Burner” and it is an appropriate name.  He’s got a great project out.  It is called Movin’ and you’ve got to hear this great record.  He has some fantastic players and singers on this great record.  Please welcome the man with the ultra sonic groove, Mr. Al Turner.  Al, how ya doin’, my friend?

Al Turner (AT):  I’m wonderful, Smitty.  It is a privilege for me and an honor to be talking to you and I thank you for that great intro.  (Both laugh.)  I need to take you on the road with me.

Jazz Monthly: Well, hey, it would be a pleasure, my friend, and the pleasure’s all mine to be talking with you as well because I’ve always wanted to sit down and do something like this with you because I have followed your career for a long time and I know what you can do and I know what you’ve accomplished in your career. I hear all the time from your peers as well how much you are so respected and so in demand because of your great vibe and your fantastic talent.

AT:  Oh, thank you, thank you.  I’ve been very blessed to play with a lot of great artists and record on a lot of great records, so I must be doing something right, huh?

Jazz Monthly: Absolutely.  I think you’re doing a lot of things right, man, and that’s a cool thing.  Now, you started out playing the bass, didn’t you?

AT:  Yes, I did.  I started when I was a teenager.  Actually, in junior high school I wanted to play drums, but my parents did not buy a drum set because they didn’t want the noise.  (Both laugh.)  So my oldest brother was playing guitar and they bought him an acoustic guitar, so he suggested that I play bass, so I went out and bought a bass guitar and just started playing around with it, didn’t know anything about it. Eventually I started learning how to play from listening to records.  At the time we were listening to a lot of Motown because we grew up in Detroit, obviously, but I was just trying to pick up bass lines from records and that’s how I actually got started.

Jazz Monthly:   Did you ever feel like you wanted to cross over and take your brother’s guitar and play it instead of the bass?

AT:  Not really, you know?  Even though I played around with it from time to time, I never really fell in love with the guitar as much as I did the bass.

Jazz Monthly:  Yeah, so it was just love at first sight, huh?  Or first touch?

AT:  Yeah, something about those low tones.

Jazz Monthly:  Yeah, man, and those thick strings.

AT:  Right, right.

Jazz Monthly:  Yes indeed.  And right out of high school, you started to play in some clubs and a cool band.  Free Spirit?

AT:  Yeah, I was playing in a band called Free Spirit and Anita Baker was our lead vocalist at the time.  She’s obviously a superstar now, but she was great then.  We did Top 40 clubs around the Detroit area and in Canada and learned a lot from that situation, and from there I met other people and I played with Orthea Barns for many years, who was a great vocalist in Detroit. I worked with her for, what, probably ten plus years.

Jazz Monthly:  Wow.  Talk about your first major break.  I mean, obviously it was cool to be playing with Anita Baker and Orthea, but to jump on the national stage, so to speak, talk about that first major break.

AT:  Well, actually, I started doing recording sessions before I actually started touring.  I was fortunate to work with Michael Powell, who actually produced three of Anita Baker’s records, and he was in Detroit.  I met him actually back in the early days when I started to get into the club scene, and once he started producing Anita Baker and other artists, he called me in and I was like his guy.  So I worked on a lot of records, Gladys Knight records, Patti Labelle, Nancy Wilson, Vesta, you name it.  It was a lot of vocal sessions that we were doing at the time.

I actually started working with a lot of those people and from that, even though I knew Earl Klugh from being in Detroit, I had never worked with him, but he called me to play on one of his records and I played on the record and in the studio he asked would I go out on the road because I had never really toured and I really wasn’t interested in touring because I was doing a lot of recording dates and I wanted to stay close to home.  I had a small child at the time.  My daughter was small.  So I wasn’t really interested in touring so he asked would I go out and I said “Well, man, let me think about it.  I can do some of your dates but not all of them.”  But anyway, to make a long story short, I went on tour with him.  I went to London.  That was my very first gig with him and I was like “Man, this is kinda cool” and I was a big fan of Earl’s already anyway.

Jazz Monthly:   Yeah, aren’t we all.

AT:  And we had already recorded the record and it was good just being around good people, good musicians, so I started touring with him and 13 years later I’m still touring with him and recording.  (Both laugh.)  So that was actually the start of me really touring and through my relationship with Earl, I met Bob James and I toured with Bob James, I recorded with him.  I met Everett Harp through Earl and I’ve worked with him, he’s on my record.  And I met Oleta Adams, actually played on her record Michael Powell produced, two of her records, so I met her in the process and I worked with her, toured with her and recorded with her throughout the years.  So basically it’s like a snowball effect.  One relationship leads to another one.

Jazz Monthly:  Yeah, but I think the other part of that, too, and it is so important, like you said, it’s hard to stay away from good people like Earl and Oleta.

AT:  Mm-hmm.

Jazz Monthly:   And those great people because, like you, I have a lot of respect for them too and love what they do and love them as a person.

AT:  Right.

Jazz Monthly:   But equally I know they recognize your talents and what you bring to the table and to the band, and I think that’s why it’s been such a long and flourishing relationship with all these great artists that you have.

AT:  Yeah, certainly, certainly. I guess that means a lot if you can deliver the goods, and a lot of it has to do with personality as well because there’s a lot of great players in the world, as you well know.

Jazz Monthly:   Yeah.

AT:  And when artists travel and they’re on the road, they need somebody that’s gonna be there and is gonna be an asset and not a headache.

Jazz Monthly:   Exactly.

AT:  So I have a good attitude and I’m pretty much self-sufficient.  I don’t need a lot when I’m out.

Jazz Monthly:   In other words, you’re not a drama cat.  You’re not one of those drama guys, huh?

AT:  Not at all, not at all.

Jazz Monthly:   (Laughs.)  I know.

AT:  And I know a lot of those.

Jazz Monthly:   Yeah, I know we do.  And that’s what I was talking about, too.  See, I’ve followed your career and we’ve talked before and I know where you’re coming from, and I can see why Earl won’t go anywhere without you.  I’ve had conversations with Bob James about you and he’s always saying “I’m always trying to get him, but he’s always busy.”

AT:  Yeah.

Jazz Monthly:   So, I mean, you are a valuable asset to all of these great artists and even though you’re not out front in front of the band…

AT:  Not yet.

Jazz Monthly:   (Laughs.)

AT:  I’m on my way, on my way.

Jazz Monthly:   Absolutely.  And it’s time, man.  It’s about time.

AT:  Yeah, yeah.

Jazz Monthly:  But your value, I mean, come on, this is the rhythm thing.  We’re talking about the backbone and the backbeat of the gig and the record.

AT:  Mm-hmm.

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