Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Pete Turner—The Color of Jazz

The Color of Jazz: Album Cover Photographs
By Pete Turner

Photographer Pete Turner’s work has been seen by millions of people. If you happened to be standing in line to see Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977, you probably saw the poster he created for the film. However, it is the images Turner created for jazz record jackets, most often those produced by Creed Taylor, which will probably be his lasting fame. Now his striking album photography has been collected in a beautiful collection titled The Color of Jazz.

In his forward, Quincy Jones expressly compares Turner to other jazz musicians, writing: “when we were in his studio he had an individual presence like composers do. I felt like I was with another musician—he had the chops! He reminded me of Clifford Brown, one of my all-time favorite trumpet players, because they were both gentle, had a certain sensitivity, and you knew they had their shit together.” (p. 6)

Unlike other well-known jazz photographers, like Francis Wolff or William Claxton, Turner’s covers did not rely on portraiture. His covers are more evocative than literal. His images are sometimes abstract or hard to identify, using bold colors and photographic effects. As Turner says of the photo used for Bill Evans’ Montreux II: “Most people don’t know what they’re looking at, just that they like it.” In the case of the Evans album, it is a photo of a boat’s wake in a Norwegian fjord.

One of the pleasures of Color is actually learning where some of the images so familiar to record collectors came from. The dramatic dark figure seen against a red background on Herbie Mann’s Glory of Love is actually “a sculpture by Carl Milles in the Millesgarden north of Stockholm.” (p. 26)

Color has some rare images CTI enthusiasts will enjoy, like the eyeball cover for Under Milkwood, a CTI/A&M LP that was never released. It also includes some alternate shots or outtakes from the series that produced the cover images for albums like Don Sebesky’s Giant Box and Joe Farrell’s Penny Arcade.

Use of color is vivid throughout Turner’s work, so not surprisingly a job in the then Soviet Union proved frustrating. According to Turner: “Time-Life had hired me to do a book on Moscow, part of their series on great cities of the world. That was a tough assignment. The only color I could find was the ‘M’ over the entrances to the subways, and I could only get the Communist government to approve photographing certain subjects, like the Bolshoi.” (p. 131) It did at least lead to the cover for Sir Roland Hanna’s Gershwin Carmichael Cats, a lovely session that is way overdue for CD reissue.

Turner has had a retrospective at the Tate Gallery in London and has had several books published of his work. Photographs, his 1987 collection published by Abrams, now out of print, is also a lovely book, but Colors features superior design and consists entirely of images related to his album cover art. Those who own Photographs will not regret picking up Colors as well. Those who enjoy CTI LPs or visually stimulating photography in general are strongly encouraged to pick up Colors—the jazz gift book of the year.

Looking through Colors summons tactile memories of the great music these images encased. Turner truly provided the signature look for Creed Taylor’s signature CTI sound. Having them preserved in such a well produced volume is indeed a thing of beauty, for anyone who feels romantic for the age of vinyl.