May 11th, 2016

8 Techniques Mark Turner Uses to Dominate the Blues

By Eric

8 Techniques Mark Turner Uses

If you’ve ever listened to Mark Turner you’ve probably wondered the same thing as me…

“What the hell is he playing?”

Rather than coming from the mind of an improviser, his solos sound like the work of an ambitious architect. Complex structures reaching into the stratosphere, lines with impossibly wide leaps, columns of arpeggios, and winding phrases that arch over the chords…

So as a musician, where do you begin when you want to discover the techniques behind his unique sound? For starters, you need to find a solo over a standard that you know inside and out.

And that’s why exactly why we’ve chosen the blues

These days you’ll hear more and more players imitating Mark Turner’s distinctive sound. But it’s not the actual notes in his solos that will make you a better player, it’s the concepts behind them…

The solo

The Mark Turner solo we’ve chosen comes from a live recording he did with the OAM Trio. Give it a listen:


On your first pass it probably sounds modern, innovative or even abstract, but underneath everything he plays lies the 12 bar blues form.

And it all works because he has a deep understanding of this form.

One thing to note about this particular version: Instead of the standard I – IV – I progression in the first 4 bars of the tune, this blues utilizes the following substitution:

The result is a minor 3rd relationship that leads to the B7, serving as a tritone sub that resolves to the Bb7 (the IV chord).

But no matter how many substitutions you put in, it’s still the blues. And as we’ll demonstrate below, you can implement all of these concepts in your own solos…

Let’s take a look at 8 improvisation techniques Mark Turner uses in his solo on MAO’s Blues.

1) Start with a melodic statement

One thing that you hear time and again in the solos of great improvisers is a melodic statement.

It doesn’t matter what tune it is, what the key is, or even what meter it’s in. Beyond the stage of memorized scales and licks comes music making – creating a musical theme and developing it over the course of your solo.

Mark Turner’s solo over on Mao’s Blues is a great example of this technique. He begins his solo with the following melodic statement – an ascending 5th:


You might be reminded of Sonny Rollins’ famous solo on St. Thomas that we looked at in this article. A simple interval that slowly grows into a full blown improvised solo…

Listen to how Mark uses this motif in his first chorus of his solo:


Notice how he utilizes the entire range of his horn and how he alters the theme to fit the changing chord progression. In the last two bars especially, you can see how he adjusts the opening statement to fit the corresponding chords:

Even though the rhythmic and melodic elements of his statement are sparse, he relies on strong chord tones like the root and 3rd to keep his solo grounded in the underlying harmony.

2) Develop your idea

The great thing about the blues is that the form is short – it’s only 12 bars.

You have time to make a simple statement and develop it in the choruses that follow. Listen to how Mark develops this his theme in the second chorus, picking up momentum and complexity along the way…


He takes the original statement and pairs it with two new sequential ideas. The first is a chromatic descent from the root of the Ab7 chord and the B7 chord:

This creates a sort of call and response with the original melodic statement and as you’ll see, this chromatic movement from the root to the b7 is a device that he uses again in the rest of his solo.

The second is a six note sequence. Like the line above, he states the idea and repeats it over a new harmonic background giving his lines continuity:

3) Improvising long lines

Another important skill that you need to develop as an improviser is the ability to play long flowing lines over a chord progression…

To start an idea and keep it going over the bar lines, no matter what the progression. To complete your musical statement without pausing because a measure ends or a chord changes.

Let’s take a look at how Mark creates a continuous line over the minor third relationship of the substituted chords in the first four bars:


To begin he combines triadic material with the chromatic descent from the root of the V7 chords:

And he continues in the next few bars with devices common to the standard jazz language – arpeggios, enclosures, and chromaticism.

The second technique that he uses to create a longer line is by employing a pattern. In the last three bars he plays the following sequence:

Notice how he is essentially playing down an F Major scale using ascending intervals preceded by a chromatic approach tone. The thing that makes this pattern stand out however, is how he groups the notes together over the bar line:


All simple concepts by themselves, but he implements them in creative ways to form his distinctive sound.

4) Triadic sequence

A distinctive trait of Mark’s playing is his ability to create lines and melodic motion without the use of standard diatonic scales. And in this solo he does this with the simplest of musical material – the triad.

Many of the choruses in this solo begin with a simple triadic statement and this is something that he has mastered in the practice room, as you can hear in the clip below (using minor triads):


Check out how he uses a simple triad as the basis for his lines in this chorus:


Through the use of inversion, variation and rhythmic content he is able to create a line that is musically interesting. Starting in the 5th bar of this chorus he uses sequence of ascending triads that eventually resolve in F Major:

Again note how he creates a melodic and rhythmic sequence that is independent of the bar line or harmonic motion.

5) Using patterns and shapes to create lines

As musicians, we often think of an improvised line as a scale or melody that directly relates to the chords…

But what about the unique aspects of the line itself…the shape, the direction, or the intervallic content?

This is an idea that Mark Turner has devoted serious thought to, as you can hear in the line below:


If you look closely at this line he is playing a 6 note pattern that continues and evolves in the space of four measures:


The glue holding the line together is not based on the underlying chord, but the shape of the line. It works because the shape of the six note sequence, when repeated, sounds logical to the listener.

He ends the chorus with the following line over a ii-V in F:

On first glance it appears that he is using outside material over the G-7 chord and using a tritone sub over the C7 chord. However, if you take a closer look you’ll see that he is using a sequence of triads over this ii-V in F:


Basic triads played in different and directions and inversion. This sequence of triads may seem unrelated harmonically, but the reason they work is that they either share a common tone or resolve by half-step with the following triad.


Mark uses a distinctive shape once more in his solo to create melodic motion. Take a listen to how he begins the following chorus:


Here he is mixing standard language with his own melodic concepts to create an 8 note shape that he repeats:

Four notes ascending and four notes descending. Notice how he continues this pattern in his line:


All of the notes can be justified harmonically, yet it’s the shape of the line that gives this melodic statement it’s pull.

6) Utilizing 4ths

The interval of a perfect fourth is synonymous with the modern jazz sound…

From McCoy Tyner to Woody Shaw and beyond, this intervallic structure departs from the traditional tertian harmonies of the standard repertoire and opens up the door for new harmonic possibilities.

In the example below, listen to how Mark uses the interval of the perfect fourth to construct his lines:


Let’s take a closer look at the first four bars of this chorus. If you take the skeleton of what he plays in this line, you’ll see that he is using 4ths that move by whole-step or share common notes:

He starts with a fourth structure from Bb and moves up a whole-step to 4ths built from C. Then he plays an F# augmented sound and moves up a whole-step again to descending 4ths to G#. It’s worth noting that each of these sounds retains a common tone to the next sound.

Over the IV chord he uses another series of 4ths, this time ascending in whole-steps:


Again if you take a look at the skeleton of the line you’ll find the following pattern of 4ths:

A series of 4ths: up from D, down to E, up from F#, down to G#.

7) Diminished language

Throughout his solo, Mark uses the diminished sound both as a scale and as an arpeggiated structure.

In the line below he uses the diminished scale over the C7 chord, eventually resolving to F:


And at the end of this chorus he uses a sequence of diminished arpeggios that descend from Ab:


The repetition of the Ab, B natural and F within the diminished arpeggios give this sequence a distinct ‘bluesy’ sound.

8) Standard Blues and Bebop Language

As with all great improvisers that sound “modern,” underneath the patterns, odd meters, and substitutions is a strong foundation of the standard jazz language.

How to play over major chords, how to play ii-V’s, and how to play the blues…

And Mark Turner is no exception. As you can hear in the 12 bars below, he relies on the language of bebop and the blues:


Notice how over the B7 chord in this chorus he uses a descending bebop scale and resolves it to the IV chord:


And note how he uses the b5, 4th and b3 in the last four bars of the chorus that come from the standard blues language.

Finally, we’ll check out one more line from Mark Turner. Here is the final statement of his solo:


Here he emphasizes chord tones and resolves to the 3rd of chords. This line over a turnaround could just as easily come from any bebop improviser:

Beneath all of his advanced harmonic and melodic concepts is the foundation of bebop and the blues.

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