Kem and Earl Klugh bassist also reminisces on Motown, James Jamerson
By David Sands
July 15, 2015
With a nickname like “The Burner,” you better believe bass player Al Turner has earned himself a reputation for turning up the heat in concert halls and studios.
His blazing musicianship has made him a go-to sideman for some of jazz and R&B’s most recognizable artists, entertainers like Aretha Franklin, Ron Isley, Gladys Knight and Bob James. Turner also happens to be a bassist and musical director for both Grammy-nominated soul singer Kem and jazz phenom Earl Klugh.
Despite his busy schedule, the bass player still makes time to work on his own creative projects. Over the last decade, Turner has released several original albums that, while grounded in in jazz, simmer with funk and R&B energies. The L.A.-based music critic Jonathan Widran gave his Megawave Records album Movin’ especially high marks calling it “one of the most compelling indie contemporary jazz releases of 2008.” Turner’s fourth album, Simply Amazing, was just released this June on the Al Turner Music label.
FBPO’s Jon Liebman recently caught up with the sought after bassist to talk about his recent solo effort, connection to legendary bassist James Jamerson, the story behind his first Ken Smith bass and more.
Although he now lives in Delaware with his wife Theresa, Turner hails from Detroit—and his hometown has played a big role in his life. Coming of age in the 1960s, he couldn’t help but be immersed in the city’s homegrown sounds.
“We were surrounded by music everywhere we went,” he says. “A lot of the Motown artists, we had a chance to meet first-hand and hear them perform. My mom used to take us to the Motortown Revues… So we had a chance to see all the great Motown acts: Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, Supremes, the Four Tops, you name it.”
Inspired, Turner even formed a youth singing group, modeled after the Temptations, with his brother and cousins. There’s a stronger Motown connection too. On his father’s side, Turner is actually related to the wife of the late great James Jamerson.
“I didn’t really understand it at the time, because I never took any lessons from him. He was just James Jamerson,” says Turner. “But later on, when I realized who he was and how much of an influence he had on the bass world, [he’d] already [moved out] to Los Angeles.”
His start on the bass came as a result of his parents quashing his drum ambitions due to noise concerns. At the suggestion of his guitar-playing brother, he saved up paper route money and bought a cheap Kimberly bass at a local electronics outlet. He then set about figuring out how to play by listening to 45s and a few LPs, with Motown as his initial inspiration.
Later he formed a band with his brother. With Jimi Hendrix as their guide, the two dove deep into rock and roll. Noel Redding and Billy Cox, both of whom played bass with Hendrix, were naturally huge influences. The Who and Yes were also big favorites.
After a while, Turner branched out into jazz and R&B. He developed a deep appreciation for Jamerson’s contributions and started to listen closely to Chuck Rainey and Anthony Jackson. Later he would also come to acknowledge the innovations of Louis Johnson, Larry Graham, Jaco Pastorius and Marcus Miller.
Turner got his feet wet playing with local bands around Detroit and Windsor, Canada. His big break came when he started performing with R&B and jazz singer Ortheia Barnes.
“Playing with her, I got the opportunity to play with a lot of stars. A lot of entertainers would come to see Ortheia perform and sit in,” he says. “That’s how I met Aretha and Earl Klugh.”
Turner also befriended producer Mike Powell, who collaborated with Anita Baker and eventually set up a local studio. Working with Powell jump-started Turner’s recording career and helped him get a foothold touring.
Eventually Earl Klugh asked if he’d join him on tour. With a young daughter at home, he was a little reluctant, but he went along on a short trip to London and loved it. After that, he tells FBPO, he “never looked back.”
Recently Turner has been channeling a lot of his creative energy into his new jazz album, Simply Amazing. With the help of Pro-Tools, the all-star collaboration was recorded all over the map—in Delaware, Detroit, Japan and numerous home studios.
Simply Amazing’s musical lineup certainly lives up to its name. Turner’s nearly 22-year associate Earl Klugh plays acoustic guitar on the project, and he hasn’t come alone. Also appearing are Ray Parker, Jr., Pianist Leroy Hyter, Chick Corea Elektric Band saxophonist Eric Marienthal, keyboardist Barry Eastmond and veteran sideman drummer Ron Otis, just to name just a few.
Rather than concentrate on a specific theme, Turner says he took time to find the right vibe for each individual song.
“Great music, great playing. That’s how I start and finish the records that I’ve done,” he says. “I just try to do something that is musical and is appealing to a broad spectrum of people. I don’t want to lock myself into a particular category or style.”
Turner keeps his options open with his gear as well. He’s got a pretty varied collection of basses, including a Sadowsky, a couple Fenders and BSX electric upright. That said, he’s well known for his longtime association with Ken Smith.
Their relationship started in 1985. Living in Detroit, Turner had bought himself an Ibanez five-string, but had difficulty finding strings for it. Eventually, he started buying them over the phone from Smith. Later, he took a day trip to New York to find a better five-string. After shopping around, Turner visited Smith at his home, tried out a demo bass and just fell in love with it. The craftsman didn’t have any others on hand at the time, but Turner wouldn’t wait, so Smith relented and sold it to him.
“The very next day, I was in the studio recording with that bass,” he says. “Word started getting around: ‘Al has this bass that’s incredible—forget about the bass player.’ So that became my main bass.”
When it comes to strings, Turner relies on the manufacturer’s brand. As for amps, he currently uses Aguilar. Talk about sound tech, though, and he perks up. Lately, he’s started using an ISP Technologies preamp and loves it. It’s a pedal model with a built-in compressor and exciter. While he doesn’t really use the distortion, he raves about its noise reduction abilities.
Asked about the future, the busy bassist gets a glint in his eye as well. He hopes to do more touring and promotion for his own music.
“I’ve done some dates on my own, but I tend to work more with these other big name artists, because they have a lot more gigs, and they help pay the bills,” he tells FBPO, laughing. “But eventually I want to do more to support the Al Turner brand.”
Turner says he’s happy to sign copies of Simply Amazing. Interested fans can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.