With members based in Chicago and France, unconventional jazz group The Turbine! makes improvisation a transatlantic project

An article by Mike Shanley, published in Pittsburg City Paper on Nov. 11, 2015

“In free music, in my humble opinion, you’re drawing upon all your resources, all your experiences that you’ve gone through.”

Numerous stories have been told about musicians who break language barriers to connect and exchange ideas through jazz. Verbal communication isn’t necessary as long as everyone knows the chord changes. Now, one transatlantic organization is taking it one step further. The Bridge is bringing together four dozen like-minded improvisers from Chicago and throughout France. According to its founders — three musicians with backgrounds in the social sciences — the Bridge will act as a network “for exchange, production and diffusion, to build a transatlantic bridge that will be crossed on a regular basis by French and American musicians as part of collaborative projects.” And rather than relying on the common ground of blues riffs or jazz standards, musicians under the Bridge umbrella are free improvisers, requiring an even greater level of musical perception from the participants.

One such project, The Turbine! (the exclamation point is part of the name), offers an especially unique approach to instrumentation. The group consists of two bassists and two drummers. Bassist Harrison Bankhead and drummer Hamid Drake reside in Chicago, where both have straddled the city’s traditional jazz scene and the more adventurous side connected to the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). Benjamin Duboc and Ramon Lopez are their French counterparts. 

Living free: The Turbine! (Harrison Bankhead, center)

Lopez gave the band its name, inspired by the thought that two basses and two drum kits would lead to perpetual motion and perpetual sound, much like an actual turbine. (The exclamation point was added simply to express Lopez’s enthusiasm.) The track titles on their debut release, the sprawling two-disc set Entropy/Enthalpy, come from the concepts of thermodynamics or physics: “Rotor/Stator,” “Electrical Coil” and “Relief Valves,” to name a few. All of them were recorded during a tour of France taken in February 2014. A few guest performers join them on the second disc, including William Parker, who adds a third bass on two tracks. But it also proves that a double rhythm section can create challenging music when left to its own devices. 

Harrison Bankhead — who has played with the late saxophonist/Chicago guru Fred Anderson and other AACM veterans — says that playing with an additional bassist is nothing new to him. “It’s something that I’ve been doing all along,” he says. “[Some] AACM bands had two bass players. All those years, Fred Anderson had two bass players.  The basic thing is, to make music, you have to use different registers and timbres, and sometimes [you have to] lay out. That’s the way I approach it: to make music that won’t compete with the other bassist. Give them space and resolutions and things like that.”

Bankhead studied his instrument with Donald Rafael Garrett, who played with John Coltrane during the saxophonist’s later, more adventurous period. “He and Jimmy Garrison did a two-bass thing [with Coltrane] and they got into a real beautiful thing,” Bankhead says. “But Rafael also played bass clarinet. So his concept was kind of beyond the bass — beyond the standard walking bass line. He could do that too, but he played outside of the box.”

An outside-the-box approach is clear in the piece “Magnetic Induction.” While one of the bassists joins the drummers to create a rolling sound, the other bassist uses his bow to produce a peaceful line on top. The duality of the sounds might seem incompatible, but the four musicians make it work. Bankhead explains that this type of improvisation isn’t based in simplicity. “In free music, in my humble opinion, you’re drawing upon all your resources, all your experiences that you’ve gone through,” he says, “in addition to being able to move forward without letting your past experiences get in the way.”

While Drake had played with William Parker in several different groups, the recording marks the first time Bankhead had ever played with the New York bassist. In “500 Megawatts,” Parker bows aggressively, creating one of the most vocal sounds heard on the instrument since Charles Mingus “argued” through his instrument with Eric Dolphy in the ’60s. Behind him, Bankhead plays a countermelody that weaves around him. In “Relief Valves,” both Turbine bassists serve as heartbeats underneath Parker’s lead. 

In talking further about free improvisation, Bankhead compares a good improvisation to the sounds of nature. “A lot of mornings, I get up at 4 o’clock and I hear the birds singing in the trees,” he says. “And all of them is singing, but they’re not getting in the way of each other. Nobody’s cancelling each other out. There may be 15 or 16 birds up there. And it sounds beautiful!”

Bankhead uses the word “beautiful” frequently as he speaks about the quartet’s music. Considering the way the musicians were combined through The Bridge — with an instrumentation that isn’t unheard of, but still sounds unusual at first blush — they do create a sound that has a visceral beauty to it.

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