Given immediate access to the kinds of communications technology we usually have in one of our pockets throughout the duration of most of our waking lives these days, it’s difficult to avoid sensationalising and trivialising the occurrence of significant events by posting a quick tweet or status update about it on one or more forms of social media. Another difficulty on social media platforms lies in not drawing too much attention to oneself when such events arise. Invariably, these events are more important than we are. When we draw too much attention to ourselves in the face of such events, we run the risk of being insufferable, at least to some extent, to our readers. One problem trumping each of these difficulties, though, is receiving news of a significant event that involves the death of someone you knew. This is intensely difficult news to receive and assimilate.
That Australian drummer extraordinaire Alan Turnbull, one of the greatest jazz drummers of all time, died this morning is significant to the world, especially to the Australian jazz community. Receiving the news of Al’s death is, I’m sure, deeply significant and intensely felt by all who knew him.
I’m ashamed to admit, though, that, as soon as I read Grahame Conlon’s Facebook post that Al had died, which I read about one minute after it was posted, I lost all sense of the world around me and, most likely in a subconscious manner, I immediately posted a Facebook status update of my own about it. Although I made it as brief as possible and tried not to draw attention to myself, I fear that the very act of me posting anything at all may have come across as though I were sensationalising and trivialising the death of a man, which is a very personal matter to those who were close to him and should be treated with great sensitivity, dignity, respect and care. I felt insensitive and so I decided to take my original post down. I then decided to repost with a link to Grahame’s original post so that I was clear about my source of information. After speaking with John Pochée this evening, who was with Alan’s grieving son Michael all day, I can now sadly confirm for myself that Grahame was right: Alan Turnbull has indeed left us.
This blog is a memorial of Al mainly for the purpose of providing another perspective, i.e. mine, on Al’s life for those who knew him so as perhaps to make him grow to be even richer in memory than he already would be, as well as to provide those who never met him with a few short stories about one of Australia’s greatest men.
There are many scores of people around the world who knew Al far better and for far longer than I did. I don’t claim to have known Al any better than anyone else, nor do I intend to make this a definitive chronicle of Al’s life other than as he was known uniquely to me. I simply just need to pay the man my respects by doing my best to remember the good times for the benefit of anyone who might be reading.
I’d love to read anyone else’s recollections of their time with Al so that I can gain yet a deeper appreciation of the man myself as I realise now, after writing this, that I only really had dealings with him on a couple of dozen occasions or so. I know people who spent a lot of time touring with him, etc, from whom I’d love to hear more stories. These few occasions were significantly memorable and formative to me and so I thought I’d share them here. My stories mainly concern the effect that Al’s drumming had on me.
Alan Turnbull: the legend
You would scarcely find an Australian jazz musician active after 1958 or so who didn’t know about Alan Turnbull. Anyone claiming to be even remotely interested in Australian jazz and who doesn’t know the name is living in a bubble and had better take a refresher course in reinvigorating their research skills because they should know “Big Al” or “Tom Terrific” – as he was known – as the best of the best!
I first discovered Al in around 1993 when his name appeared in the liner notes of the Don Burrows CD, Jazz Bros., an ABC release. I had this CD because I knew that Andrew Gander played drums on there and Gander was, to me at that time, the greatest drummer in the world. Gander had mentioned in an interview around that time that Al had been influential on him and so I paid attention. There were some lovely swinging drums on the tracks that featured Al, but it wasn’t until my first night out as a new resident of Sydney in January 1995 that I realised that there was a justifiably high degree of legend about him.
It was a Sunday night and I met up with my friend, pianist Nick Southcott, who took me to Café de Lane just off Oxford St in Surry Hills to see Cathy Harley play her music with Warwick Alder, Bernie McGann, Craig Scott and Alan Turnbull. With me being 17 years old and straight out of Tamworth High School, I witnessed the band play a simmering set of music that imbued me with an excitement I’d never experienced before when listening to music. There was a glorious freshness and sparkle in Al’s time feel and touch that was incredibly engaging. I heard everyone in the band riding the magical sound waves that emanated from the drumset with a deftly sublime balance, underlying and framing the band’s sound beautifully, lending a tremendously buoyant and insistently propulsive sense of forward motion with every note.
I met Al and the rest of the band after the gig. Al asked a few questions about what I was doing and I told him I was about to start studying at The Con. He told me that all I need to do is to get Jim Chapin’s book, listen to the accompanying tape and learn to play like that because Chapin plays the exercises very fast on the tape. I already had the book, but I had not yet heard the tape. Barry Stewart, my teacher at The Con ended up giving me a copy of the tape and then I understood what Al was talking about. Perhaps this is why I ended up seeking Chapin out in New York and studying with him for a few months in 2002? If so, thanks Al for planting the seed!
I began my studies at The Con the very next day floating high on a cloud of pure inspiration.
Time and touch
I saw Al play play a bunch of gigs with Cathy and with others at that time, but the next most significant memory comes from Armidale, July 1995. I’d been invited to teach alongside Al (although I’m not really sure how that’s possible) by Pax (Paul) Andrews for a jazz camp in Armidale. Willow Neilson, Ben Savage, Alfredo Lopez, Nick Southcott and I got to hang out with Al for about a week, as well as with Warwick Alder, Rolf Stube, Rebecca Smith, Cathy Harley. What a great week! The most interesting thing occurred during the closing gig at the local pub in Armidale.
Al had flown to Armidale and so he didn’t have his drums, only his cymbals. I drove from Sydney with my drums and so he was able to play these whenever he needed to. I had as identical a cymbal set up to Al as I could in those days, with the exception of the famous cut-out “triangular” Chinese sizzle cymbal on his left. The two cymbals that I had were an 18” A Zildjian flat ride (his was an older 18” Paiste 602 flat), and an 18” Sabian sizzle cymbal (his was an older 18” A Zildjian sizzle). I just loved the sound he got from those cymbals. So, for this gig in Armidale, I had my drums and cymbals set up for the night. Al played before me and I was in the bathroom when he was setting up and adjusting the drums to his preference. When I came out of the bathroom I noticed that Al had his Chinese sizzle set up on his left and, surely enough, there were the accompanying two 18” cymbals on his right. So I sat and enjoyed hearing him play again with a stream of great players. Finally, it was my turn to play, and, apart from being incredibly nervous, I thought to myself “wow, I get to play Alan Turnbull’s cymbals” because he left them set up when he got off the drums and we did an immediate changeover. To my utter surprise, when I sat down at my drums, I realised that Al hadn’t switched the other two cymbals at all, and that he’d been playing my cymbals all along, except for the Chinese sizzle on the left! I couldn’t believe it, but continued to play, sounding pathetically like myself.
It still boggles my mind that Al Turnbull managed to get his own sound completely using my cymbals, and that I couldn’t get that same sound when I played them. When people talk about Alan’s ride cymbal, they’re talking about this: it’s his touch and time that makes the difference, and this is transferrable onto any artefact. His was perhaps the clearest in the world. The only drummer who comes close in my estimation is Jack de Johnette sometimes. But the unique “tippiness” of Al’s sound was even more distinct. I’ve heard other drummers achieve a kind of facsimile of this sound by holding the stick really tight and creating a kind of “cupping” shape in their hand that acts as a resonating chamber, but this is not it because, to watch Al was to see the loosest, most relaxed drummer I’ve ever seen in person except, say, Vinnie Colaiuta. It really was a phenomenon unto itself that is now gone, never to be repeated. It’s interesting to note, too, that he used great big sticks, like Rock or 2B models, thereby dispelling the myth of jazz drummers needing to get the “tipping” sound only with tiny little sticks.
I have a picture attached from that night. The picture contains two photos: the photo at the top is of Al with Pax, Warwick, Cathy, Rolf and guitarist Andrew French-Northam; and on the bottom is Nick Southcott and me. You can see my drums and Al’s Chinese sizzle cymbal in both photos. You can also see the mental gymnastics running through the expression of incredulity on my face as I try to come to terms with the magic of Al’s touch that night – I really didn’t know how to cope with this new realisation about touch. I still don’t!
I was also lucky to see Al do a recording with Pax, Becky, Warwick and Rolf some time during this camp. I sat right behind him and remember the look of sheer concentration on his profile as he had his head turned toward the cymbal. He appeared to be listening like crazy. He also appeared to have the occasional look of disappointment on his face, but to my ears, there was nothing to be disappointed about. Perhaps he was so deeply attuned to the most subtle nuances that he had already edited out in advance what wouldn’t sound good so that what remained only sounded great? I wonder if anyone has a copy of this?!
Sheer skill and relaxation
One night in around 1997 or so, I went to Nick Southcott’s parents’ house in Fairlight to be in the audience for one of a series of soirées they used to hold at the house with their beautiful Yamaha C7 grand in the living room. This particular night featured the great Andrew Speight with a bass player from Michigan (whose name I now forget), John Harkins on piano, and Alan Turnbull on the drums. This was exciting! On one particularly uptempo piece, and I’m talking “Max Roach tempo” in the vicinity of 350 – 400 beats per minute, I nearly fell out of my seat. Al was as relaxed as ever and the piece was cooking! He sat there with his buck teeth, peering over his orange lens glasses as casually as though he were reading the morning paper. He was totally relaxed, not struggling at all and it sounded delightful! At one point, he played a line of consecutive quavers (8th-notes) on the snare drum in counterpoint with his lovely ride feel and this went on for a few bars. The strangest thing is that his hand didn’t move in a “push-pull” technique reminiscent of the Moeller technique that many drummers successfully get that “one-handed-roll” effect from. It was kind of stationary and yet not stiff. In fact, he appeared not to be doing anything at all with his hand, and yet the snare drum sounded like a machine gun for a few bars! Astonished by this, I ran right up to him at the end of the set in disbelief and asked, “Al, Al, Al, what was that thing you did with your left hand on the burner: it looked like you weren’t doing anything!?” In his usual, inimitable fashion, he peered over those glasses at me and simply remarked, “mate, I haven’t done anything since 1958!”
I remember standing next to Al at the side of stage at what was probably the 1995 or 1996 Manly Jazz Festival. We were watching Andrew Gander play his arse off in Daryl Pratt’s band Sonic Fiction. Al leaned over at one point and said, “mate, this guy plays the shit out of the drums!”
I remember seeing Al getting around that same festival in his tracksuit and thongs, playing with everyone. He had the whole logistics/portability thing concerning the drums down! He had a “pack and roll” case with the lightest possible hardware configuration imaginable inside – all flat base cymbal stands as well as a tiny little cymbal arm that was fixed to the bass drum – as well as his snare drum. He took the front head off of the bass drum of his old red Rogers set and used to nest the toms and snare in there. With the bass drum sitting on top of the pack and roll, he would wheel around from gig to gig. I’ve heard similar such reports of Al getting around Wangaratta in this manner.
I used to live with Sean Wayland, Nick McBride and Phil Slater in a jazz share house in Maroubra in 1996. We were known as The ‘Bra Boys, or, they were really, as I was just a young kid who couldn’t cook. Anyway, Alan lived with his son Michael just down the road and I believe that’s where he still lived when he died this morning. One night I was able to give Al a ride home from the city and he told me how much he loved Jack de Johnette’s drumming. He also said that “you can see Tony Williams play, you can see Elvin Jones play, you can see Jack de Johnette play, but mate, you can never forget seeing Roy Haynes play!” Maybe a year after that ride I saw Roy Haynes play for a week at The Basement – I even got to be Roy’s assistant for the week – and I’m glad I’d heard Al say what he said because, not that I got to see Tony or Elvin before they died, but I’ll never forget seeing Roy play that week. The same could be said for Alan Turnbull: you can see all the best drummers in the world play, but you’ll never forget seeing Alan Turnbull play!
I went over to his house around that time for a lesson and that’s when I met Michael. Al enjoyed a few beers and told me about how amazing it was when he saw Miles Davis play at Sydney Entertainment Centre in the early 1980s with John Scofield.
Pianist and friend Darrin Archer and I still remember being completely gobsmacked after seeing Al and Craig Scott play with George Cables at the Strawberry Hills Hotel in the mid-’90s.
The great Billy Field once said to me, “mate, I’ve only ever met two geniuses: Barry Humphries and Alan Turnbull!”
The last time I saw Al play was at The Side On Café in 2002 with Con Campbell and Phil Stack. It was beautiful to hear him again after having not heard him for a few years. At the end of the night I went to offer him some help getting his drums off the stage and he said “mate, relax!” Later that night, I remember being with Sean Wayland and a couple of others, sitting around a table while Big Al had all of us, particularly Sean, in stitches as he went on to elaborate on the ways in which he’s “got the tax office fucked!”
The last time I saw him alive was in 2012 at Ken James’ wake at Paddington RSL. I was playing with Ten Part Invention and with Steve Hunter. I knew that Alan Turnbull, John Pochée and Gordon Rytmeister were in the audience during these sets and I was incredibly nervous about playing for them, as well as for the other great musicians who were there, including Billy Field. Anyway, at the endif the gig I was glad to be able to introduce Alan to my wife Patrice, although I regret that we neglected to take a photo. When Al met Patrice, he said, “ah, so you married The Boy Wonder!” I felt incredibly proud of such a compliment coming from him, but as I reflect on Al today, I realised he talked about everyone like that, not just me. Whenever I saw him talk with anyone, or whenever I’d see him after some time, he’d invariably say something like “so mate, how’s life at the top?” and so on. What a great man. He told me that day that he’d happily retired and when I asked him why he said, “well, my son Michael looked in my 1981 diary once and noticed that I’d only had two days off that year and he said to me, ‘Dad, you’ve gotta take a fucken break!‘ My doctor looked at my 1982 diary and noticed that I’d only had two nights off that year and he said to me, ‘Al, you’ve gotta take a fucken break!‘ So now I’ve retired and I’m taking a fucken break.” I wish he were somehow able to come back from this break and “make another comeback.”
Thank goodness there are a bunch of really great albums featuring Al’s drumming! There are many more than I’ve got listed here, but these are the ones I know and that made a big impact on me. In no particular order, they are:
Cathy Harley Quintet, Tuesday’s Tune
Graeme Norris, Pentatomic
Rolf Stube, Jazz Police
Dale Barlow, Horn
I guess I can sum up my overall feeling about Al’s influence on my life in his words, “mate, relax!”
Some nice tributes from others include Sean Wayland’s quote from Al on Facebook just now:
“I listen to the other guys play. That’s the most important thing when you are on a gig. Just sit there and enjoy hearing your friends play. I listen to where they put the beat and I try and play around it, a little bit ahead sometimes and a little bit behind sometimes. That way you can make them feel really comfortable.”
Andrew Gander had these words to say about his first experience of hearing Al play at Sydney Opera House:
“By about the five minute mark I was experiencing the proverbial ‘moment of clarity’ along with a feeling of mounting uneasiness about my own playing prospects as the sheer weight of the guy’s chops and drumming intellect descended on me and I began to grasp the scale of the problem facing me. It was a genuinely mind altering experience that opened the door to everything else, and that first feeling of contact not only with Allan’s technical depth, but with his whole overarching concept of time and accompaniment, has stayed with me ever since. My teacher :-)” - Source: http://www.jazzandbeyond.com.au/bitmaps/bestgigs.html#AndrewGander
Thanks for the memories, and for the inspiration, Al. Enjoy the break, and Rest In Peace.
Check Alan Turnbull, Craig Scott and Paul McNamara playing with the great Joe Henderson here:
Here's a photo showing the incredible wealth of Australian drumming talent that got together to send Al off at his funeral: