Over the last 20 years leading up to his emotionally hard-hitting, wildly eclectic solo debut album My Americana, pianist/composer Ernest Turner has worked with everyone from John Ellis and Frank Foster to the Heath Brothers, Nnenna Freelon and Christian Scott. During his watershed time in New Orleans, where he earned a Bachelor’s in Jazz Studies from Loyola University, trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis preached to him about the historical importance of music. Family patriarch Ellis Marsalis told Turner the importance of a set list full of highs and lows.
Another wise cohort, legendary saxman Jimmy Heath told the pianist that “every record needs to have blues, groove and a ballad. A daring and delightful showcase for Turner’s keen, adventurous senses of melody and rhythm, My Americana finds the artist taking all these words of wisdom to heart while eschewing the usual standards-happy approach in favor of an insightful romp through various aspects of a canon he calls the “Black American Songbook.”
Blazing fresh trails full of funk, improvisation and deeply sensitive sensuality, Turner and his powerhouse longtime trio of bassist Lance Scott and drummer Jon Curry elevate the concept of “offbeat and unexpected” to transcendent levels as they fashion colorful re-imaginings of classics and obscurities by Stevie Wonder (“If It’s Magic”), Thelonious Monk (“Monk’s Dream”), Kenny Kirkland (“Dienda”), Fats Waller (Ain’t Misbehavin’”) and the father of black gospel music, Thomas A. Dorsey (a soul stirring, piano only spin through “Precious Lord”).
It’s testament to Turner’s own compositional prowess that his two originals, the spirited, fired up “In Or Out” and the bustling bebopper “Return to Thanos” (inspired by “The Avengers” film series) stack up so perfectly alongside this refresher course in black music history. His choice of coda, a vibrant and optimistic swirl through “We Shall Overcome” is our cue that the story of triumph and struggle he’s telling through his music, while important and fascinating, is far from over - yet worth every note, groove and drop of sweat invested.