"Dig," wrote Miles Davis of Earl Turbinton, "the clear funky black soprano sound."
Davis was writing the liner notes to keyboardist Joe Zawinul's debut album, "Zawinul."
Zawinul had been a member of Davis' band; one of the compositions on "Zawinul" -- "In a Silent Way" -- had been a title track of a Davis album. Turbinton was playing soprano saxophone on material that had been played by the legendary Wayne Shorter and bringing his own spiritual, meditative read to this classic theme.
Turbinton's soprano work on "Zawinul" is nothing short of phenomenal.
Zawinul relied on Turbinton's strong, Indo-African sonority to carry the melodic themes of the unforgettable soundscapes inspired by his youth in the otherworldly Austrian mountains. When the time came later in the pieces, Turbinton unleashed fierce solos redolent of John Coltrane's inspired soprano arpeggios.
Turbinton fit in so well with Zawinul and Miroslav Vitous on this adventurous music, it's not surprising that the charter members of Weather Report asked Turbinton to join their new group. Turbinton turned down the gig that eventally went to Shorter.
Unwilling to be typed by any one bag, he left instead to join B.B. King's group, where he played the blues on several albums, including "Live in Japan," "Guess Who?" and "L.A. Midnight."
Turbinton's eclectic musical journey also includes work with Professor Longhair, Gatemouth Brown, Allen Toussaint, the Wild Magnolias, Bill Doggett, Jerry Butler, Labelle, the American Jazz Quintet, Champion Jack Dupree, Lowell Fulson, the Neville Brothers, Andy J. Forest, J Monque'D, Buster Williams, Reuben Wilson and Ron Levy.
The lack of a viable jazz recording center in New Orleans has kept a number of tremendous musicians of Turbinton's caliber from being heard. Even Ellis Marsalis had to leave town at one point before the overwhelming success of his sons finally brought him the kind of attention his music deserved all along.
Turbinton can be heard from time to time playing local New Orleans clubs like Sweet Lorraine's, but his appearance at the upcoming New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (April 26-May 5) is a rare opportunity for Turbinton's relentlessly distinctive voice to be heard by the outside world.
It's an opportunity jazz fans simply cannot afford to miss.
Turbinton was born on Sept. 23, 1941, the same birthdate (15 years later) as John Coltrane, who Turbinton claimed a "spiritual kinship" with, and who he eventually met in 1962.
"I spent three days with Trane," said Turbinton. "He showed me how to play pentatonic scales. They were playing all kinds of inversions and they'd go outside the mode, inside the mode .... It was more of an Eastern sound, African and Indian, as opposed to Western harmony."
But Turbinton's musical education was not limited to jazz -- growing up he also heard plenty of the blues and R&B that permeated the black New Orleans neighborhoods.
New Orleans is a city of musical families, and the Turbinton family has its own special place in its history.
Earl Turbinton Sr. was a trombonist and his wife sang. In 1954, when Earl Jr. was 13 and his younger brother, pianist Wilson (Willie Tee), was 11, the family moved to the Calliope project. Both brothers took instruction from members of the Batiste family, Earl from Alvin Batiste and Wilson from Harold Batiste. The boys played together in a group called the Seminoles, a name undoubtedly influenced by the Mardi Gras Indian krewes that congregated in the projects, performing at talent contests and making a few bucks in the process.
The brothers played together again during the 1960s in Willie Tee and the Souls along with David Lee on drums, who has played with them in various combinations over the years since. Willie Tee and the Souls had a minor hit in 1965 with "Teasin' You," written by Earl King and arranged by Wardell Quezerque.
The brothers' next collaboration was on a crucial piece of New Orleans music history, the 1974 album "The Wild Magnolias." Those Mardi Gras Indians that the Turbintons had heard chanting in the hood became an internationally-known institution after Willie Tee wrote and arranged new material for them and put together a terrific accompaniment band featuring himself on piano, Earl on alto clarinet and soprano saxophone, Snooks Eaglin on guitar, Julius Farmer on bass, Larry Panna on drums and Alfred Roberts on congas.
Meanwhile Earl was finding it difficult to work as a jazz musician.
Nat and Cannonball Adderley recorded him in 1968 at Cosimo Matassa's studio but the project was never released. That same year Earl started the Jazz Workshop on Decatur Street, a nonprofit organization dedicated to teaching young people to play jazz. Though the Workshop itself failed, the idea continued to evolve and eventually became the highly successful New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts.
Unfortunately Earl Turbinton gets very little recognition for pioneering this idea.
Earl has played extensively as a sideman over the years, but he has one album currently in print, "Brothers For Life" (Rounder), featuring Willie Tee on keyboards, their old partner David Lee on drums and James Singleton on bass. This excellent album features Earl's great alto saxophone workout, "Neferdoris," which is at once a tribute to Coltrane and an illustration of how far Earl could take that vision in his own direction.