CHARLES TURNER (right) and longtime partner, US-based Israeli reed player and band leader Eyal Vilner. (photo credit: Eric Esquivel)
CHARLES TURNER (right) and longtime partner, US-based Israeli reed player and band leader Eyal Vilner. (photo credit: Eric Esquivel)
US vocalist Charles Turner heads to Israel for Hot Jazz

If you’ve just happened upon contemporary jazz, you might be forgiven for thinking of it as an intricate, carefully crafted discipline that aims to deliver melodically and harmonically tight numbers.

That is certainly true of some of the sounds that get put out there, at gigs across the country and the world, but it is far from the whole story.

Jazz, in case we have forgotten, started out as dance music, sounds to get up and jive to. Yes, the discipline did evolve from the blues, which has a plaintive core to it. But check out the vibes of the likes of King of Swing clarinetist and band leader Benny Goodman, or ever-smiling preeminent trumpeter-vocalist Louis Armstrong, and you are more than likely to start to get that feel-good buzz and, possibly, even begin shaking a leg.

Charles Turner goes along with that sunny-side-of-the-street ethos. The California-born vocalist-songwriter is heading over this way to team up with longtime sparring partner, US-based Israeli reed player and band leader Eyal Vilner, for the next slot in the current Hot Jazz series.

Turner will front Vilner’s sextet January 14-21 at shows around the country, including in Jerusalem, Herzliya, Tel Aviv, Kfar Saba and Haifa. And the fact that the concert song list draws from the expansive repertoire of iconic singer and band leader Billy Eckstine, who died in 1993 at the age of 78, means a rollicking good time for all is in the bag.

Charles Turner (credit: BARRY DAVIS)Charles Turner (credit: BARRY DAVIS)

And we could all do with some of that, couldn’t we?

Getting out to one of the Hot Jazz gigs could be just the non-pharma shot in the arm we have all been waiting for, for some time now.

TURNER MAKES no apologies for his positive take on his craft and life in general, and his intent to spread some of that around.

“Entertainment value is most important for me,” he declares. He also spells out his professional credo and breaks it down into neat, easily digestible chunks. “When I’m performing, there are two things that I really want to embody, and that I want other people to feel and experience themselves. That is freedom and joy.”

“When I’m performing, there are two things that I really want to embody, and that I want other people to feel and experience themselves. That is freedom and joy.”

Charles Turner

You don’t need your family doctor to tell you that is a pretty reliable prescription for improved emotional and, thus, physical health.

“The beautiful thing about jazz [is], you know, I think about structure. Structure is freedom in the sense that in jazz, you learn things from the Great American Songbook. There are chord progressions and patterns. And these patterns, harmonically and musically, create a structure. Once you have that, you can, I found, really take off with it.”

That stands to reason and also lies at the heart of any fundamentally improvisational pursuit. It is also similar to learning a spoken language. You can’t really express yourself, in your own singular way, if you don’t first acquire the basic toolbox – the grammar and syntax – which then enables you to riff, in terms of your choice of phrasing, tone and rhythm, as you see fit out there on the street, in everyday life. If you don’t have a solid foundation, you are likely to lose your way when you start extemporizing.

“Freedom is not just like wow! There is, for example, just the decency and kindness of understanding that, in order for you to have a lot of joy, you should be kind to others. It’s not like just do what you want, willy-nilly,” Turner observes.

I took it, then, that he doesn’t go along with the darkly humorous line from late rock-blues singer Janis Joplin’s rendition of “Me and Bobby McGee,” from her posthumously released 1971 album, Pearl: “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

Considering Turner’s smiley life philosophy, I was surprised when he didn’t reject that notion out of hand.

“I would say part of that is correct,” he says, although, naturally, taking his line of thought in a positive direction. “I would say in the sense of having the freedom of not being afraid of judgment is an important part that everyone needs to be reminded of.”

Spot on, particular in an era of proliferating social media when, it seems, anyone can fire away as they wish but then may find it difficult to deal with some of the backlash.

“People are often afraid of how they look or what other people are going to see them as,” he continues. He has clearly been making some progress on that score. “I have been learning how to kind of let that go. Understanding what I am embodying is just my joy.”

Watching some of what Turner gets up to online, and the merry delivery and the sunny vibes he dishes out with, for example, his Uptown Swing band, it appears that he has got that down pat.

Using some of Eckstine’s back catalogue to get the feel-good factor going isn’t a bad idea either.

“You can feel the joy in his voice, in his texture, and the grandness of his sound,” Turner notes. “There is no hiding. He is [on stage] who he is. There is so much charisma.”

Turner is not exactly short on that either. That patently comes across in the two albums he has recorded to date, which dip into a broad range of musical styles, and particularly his onstage work.

Eckstine was quite a character, and achieved success despite the prevailing racism he encountered in the music industry and across large tracts of American society. As now 89-year-old musician, record producer, songwriter, composer and arranger extraordinaire Quincy Jones once said, Eckstine “was not immune to the prejudice that characterized the 1950s.” Jones described him as “a complete person in the image of dignity that he projected.”

If Turner manages to project even a morsel of that personal dynamism as well as, of course, the requisite polished vocals, we are in for a real good time.

IT WON’T do Turner or us any harm to have Vilner and his gang on stage either. Born in Tel Aviv, the multi-instrumentalist and band leader moved to the Big Apple in 2007 and completed a degree at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. In the interim, he has carved out a sizable niche for himself, in the States and around the world, as a composer and arranger of swing numbers performed by his big band.

Vilner describes the combo as “an extension” of his music studies. “The way I saw it, I wanted to learn about the dance bands by ‘doing it.’ The big band sound and the big band concept was something that was fascinating for me and, you know, something that I loved. For me, exploring swing dancing and Lindy Hop was an extension of doing my homework and immersing myself in this culture.”

A sixth Vilner record recently saw the light of day, a rich tribute to swing titled The Jam! He makes a point of reminding us that swing music and dancing underwent a revival, beginning in the eighties, and that the two appeal not only to seated audiences interested in hearing this sound but to audiences eager to get up and dance, too.

Plenty of reasons to feel cheerful around these parts when Turner, Vilner & co. blow into town.

For tickets and more information: (03) 573-3001 and

George Medevoy contributed to this report.

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